فصل 11

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Chapter eleven


Momma told us one day that she was taking us to California. She explained that we were growing up, that we needed to be with our parents, that Uncle Willie was crippled, that she was getting too old. All true, but none of those truths satisfied our need for The Truth. The Store and the rooms in back became a going-away factory. Momma sat at the sewing machine for hours, making and remaking clothes for use in California.

Whatever the real reason, The Truth, for taking us to California, I shall always think it lay mostly in an incident in which Bailey had the leading part. On an afternoon a few weeks before Momma revealed her plan to take us West, Bailey came into the Store shaking. His face was no longer black but a dirty, colorless gray. As we always did when we entered the Store, he walked behind the candy counter and leaned on the cash register. Uncle Willie had sent him on an errand to whitefolks’ town and he wanted an explanation for Bailey’s late return. After a brief moment our uncle could see that something was wrong and, feeling unable to cope, he called Momma from the kitchen.

“What’s the matter, Bailey Junior?”

He said nothing. I knew when I saw him that it would be useless to ask anything while he was in that state. It meant that he had seen or heard of something so ugly or frightening that he couldn’t make himself respond as a result. He had explained when we were young that when things were very bad his soul went to sleep. When it awoke, the fearful thing had gone away. I had to swear that when his soul was sleeping, I would never try to wake it; the shock might make it go to sleep for ever. So I left him alone, and after a while Momma had to leave him alone too.

When he felt better he asked Uncle Willie what colored people had done to white people to make them hate us. Uncle Willie, who was not used to explaining things because he was like Momma, said little except that “colored people hadn’t even bothered a hair on whitefolks’ heads.”

Bailey said he saw a man, a colored man, who was dead.

Uncle Willie asked, “Who-who was it?”

Bailey said, “When I passed the prison, some men had just fished him out of the lake. He was wrapped in a sheet, all rolled up. Then a white man walked over and pulled the sheet off. The man was on his back but the white man stuck his foot under the sheet and rolled him over on his stomach. He had no color at all, and he was blown up like a ball. The colored men backed away, and I did, too, but the white man stood there, looking down, and grinned. Uncle Willie, why do they hate us so much?”

Uncle Willie replied, “They don’t really hate us. They don’t know us. How can they hate us? They’re mostly scared.”

Momma asked if Bailey had recognized the man, but he didn’t hear her.

“Mr. Bubba told me I was too young to see something like that and I ought to go straight home, but I had to stay. Then the white man called us closer. He said, ‘O.K., you boys, take him into the prison. When the Sheriff comes, he’ll inform his family. This is one nigger nobody has to worry about anymore. He ain’t going nowhere else.’ Then the men picked up corners of the sheet, but since nobody wanted to get close to the man they held only the ends, and he almost rolled out on the ground. The white man called me to come and help too.”

Momma exploded. “Who was it?” She made herself clear. “Who was the white man?”

Bailey couldn’t let go of the horror. “I picked up a side of the sheet and walked in the prison with the men. I walked in the prison carrying a rotten dead Negro.” His voice was ancient with shock. His eyes were huge.

“The white man pretended he was going to lock us all in there, but Mr. Bubba said, ‘Oh, Mr. Jim. We didn’t do it. We ain’t done nothing wrong.’ Then the white man laughed and said we boys couldn’t take a joke, and opened the door.” He breathed his relief. “I was glad to get out of there. The prison, and the prisoners screaming that they didn’t want any dead nigger in there with them. That he’d make the place smell bad. They called the white man ‘Boss.’ They said, ‘Boss, surely we ain’t done nothing bad enough for you to put another nigger in here with us, and a dead one, too.’ Then they laughed. They all laughed like there was something funny.”

Bailey was talking so fast he forgot to stutter. He was thinking about a mystery that young Southern Black boys start to solve, try to solve, from the time they’re seven years old until their death. The humorless puzzle of inequality and hate. His experience raised the question of worth and values, of aggressive inferiority and aggressive arrogance. Could Uncle Willie, a Black man, Southern, and crippled, hope to answer the questions, asked and unasked? Would Momma, who knew the ways of the whites and the ways of the Blacks, try to answer her grandson, whose life depended on him not truly understanding the mystery? Most certainly not.

They both responded characteristically. Uncle Willie said something like he didn’t know what the world was coming to, and Momma prayed, “God rest his soul, poor man.” I’m sure she began planning the details of our California trip that night.

Our transportation was Momma’s major concern for many weeks. She had arranged with a railroad employee to provide her with a pass in exchange for groceries. The pass allowed a reduced fare only, and even that had to be approved. So we had to wait until white people we would never see, in offices we would never visit, signed and stamped and mailed the pass back to Momma. My fare had to be paid in cash. Taking that much money out of our cash register was financially difficult. Momma decided Bailey couldn’t accompany us, but that he would follow within a month or so when the bills were paid. Although our mother now lived in San Francisco, Momma must have felt it wiser to go first to Los Angeles, where our father was. She had me write letters, telling me what to write, advising them both that we were on our way.

And we were on our way, but unable to say when. Our clothes were washed, ironed, and packed. Neighbors, who understood the difficulties of travel, said goodbye a million times. A widowed friend of Momma’s had agreed to take care of Uncle Willie. After thousands of false departures, at last we left Stamps.

My sorrow was limited to sadness at separating from Bailey for a month (we had never been separated), the imagined loneliness of Uncle Willie (at thirty-five, he’d never been separated from his mother), and the loss of Louise, my first friend. I wouldn’t miss Mrs. Flowers, because she had given me her secret word which would help me all my life: books.

I didn’t actually think about meeting Mother until the last day of our journey. I was “going to California.” To oranges and sunshine and movie stars and earthquakes and (finally I realized) to Mother. My old guilt returned. I wondered if Mr. Freeman’s name would be mentioned, or if I would be expected to say something about the situation myself. I certainly couldn’t ask Momma, and Bailey was a million miles away.

I was unprepared to meet my mother. Too soon she stood before me, smaller than I remembered but more wonderful than any memory. She wore a light-brown suit, shoes to match, and a hat with a feather in the band. She patted my face with her gloved hands. She kissed and laughed and rushed about collecting our coats and organizing our luggage. She easily took care of the details. I was amazed again at how wonderful she was.

We moved into an apartment, and I slept on a sofa that was changed at night into a large comfortable bed. Mother stayed in Los Angeles long enough to get us settled. Then she returned to San Francisco to find a place to live for her suddenly larger family.

Momma and Bailey (he joined us a month after our arrival) and I lived in Los Angeles for about six months while our permanent living arrangements were being finalized. Daddy Bailey visited occasionally, bringing shopping bags of fruit. He was like a Sun God, bringing warmth and light to our lives.

When the arrangements for our move north were completed,

Momma gave us the shocking news that she was going back to Arkansas. She had done her job. She was needed by Uncle Willie. We had our own parents at last. At least we were all in the same state.

There were days of unknowing for Bailey and me. It was fine to say that we would be with our parents, but who were they? Would they be more severe with our mistakes than she? That would be bad. Or less severe? That would be even worse. Would we learn to speak the fast language of our Mexican neighbors? I doubted that, and I doubted even more that I would ever find out what they laughed about so loudly and so often.

I would have been willing to return to Stamps even without Bailey. But Momma left for Arkansas without me.

Mother drove us toward San Francisco over the big white highway that seemed like it would never end. She talked constantly and pointed out places of interest. She told humorous stories and tried to win our attention. But her personality, and the fact that she was our mother, had done the job so successfully that her efforts were unnecessary. Nothing could have been more magical than to have found her at last, and have her completely to ourselves in the closed world of a moving car.

Although we were both delighted, Bailey and I were aware of her nervousness. The knowledge that we had the power to upset that godlike person made us look at each other and smile. It also made her human.

We spent a few months in an Oakland apartment which had a bathtub in the kitchen and was near enough to the train station to shake at the arrival and departure of every train. In many ways it was like being in St. Louis again-and Grandma Baxter was again living with us.

We went to school and no family member questioned the amount or quality of our work. We went to a playground which had a basketball court, a football field, and table tennis tables in

shelters with roofs. On Sundays, instead of going to church, we went to the movies.

I slept with Grandmother Baxter. One evening after going to bed normally, I was awakened by a shaking. I saw my mother kneeling by my bed. She brought her face close to my ear.

“Ritie,” she whispered, “Ritie. Come, but be very quiet.” Then she quietly rose and left the room. Dutifully, I followed. The light coming through the half-opened kitchen door showed Bailey’s pajamaed legs hanging from the covered bathtub. The clock on the dining-room table said 2:30. I had never been up at that hour.

I looked questioningly at Bailey and knew by his response that there was nothing to fear. Then I quickly thought about the list of important events. It wasn’t anybody’s birthday, or April Fool’s Day, or Halloween, but it was something.

Mother closed the kitchen door and told me to sit beside Bailey. She put her hands on her waist and said we had been invited to a party.

Was that why she woke us in the middle of the night! Neither of us said anything.

She continued, “I am giving a party and you are my honored and only guests.”

She opened the oven and took out a pan of her cookies and showed us a pot of chocolate milk on the back of the stove. We could only laugh at our beautiful and wild mother. When Bailey and I started laughing, she joined in, but she kept her finger in front of her mouth to try to quiet us.

We were served formally, and she apologized for not having a band to play for us but said she’d sing instead. She sang and danced. What child can resist a mother who laughs freely and often, especially if the child is mature enough to understand the joke?

World War II started on a Sunday afternoon when I was on my way to the movies. People in the streets shouted, “We’re at war. We’ve declared war on Japan.”

I ran all the way home, unsure whether I would be bombed before I reached Bailey and Mother. Grandmother Baxter calmed my anxiety by explaining that America would not be bombed, not as long as Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president. He knew what he was doing.

Soon after, Mother married Daddy Clidell, who became the first father I would know. He was a successful businessman, and he and Mother moved us to San Francisco. Grandmother remained in the big house in Oakland.

In the early months of World War II, San Francisco’s Fillmore district experienced a visible change. The Asian population disappeared. As the Japanese left, soundlessly and without protest, the Negroes entered. Japanese shops were taken over by Negro businessmen, and in less than a year became permanent homes for the newly arrived Southern Blacks. No member of my family and none of the family friends ever mentioned the absent Japanese. It was as if they had never owned or lived in the houses that were now ours.

The sense of change, the lack of permanence of life in wartime, and the awkward behavior of the recent arrivals helped to lessen my own sense of not belonging. In San Francisco, for the first time, I saw myself as part of something. I didn’t identify with the newcomers, nor with the Black natives of San Francisco, nor with the whites or even the Asians. I identified with the times and the city. The feeling of fear that San Francisco would be bombed strengthened my sense of belonging. Hadn’t I always thought that life was just one great risk?

To me, a thirteen-year-old Black girl, used to the South and Southern Black lifestyle, the city was a state of beauty and a state of freedom. I became free of fears. Feeling safe, I was certain that no one loved San Francisco as I did.

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