فصل 03

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Chapter three

Life in Stamps

The difference between a Southern town and a Northern town must be the experiences of childhood. Heroes and enemies are first met, and values and dislikes are first learned and labeled in that early environment.

Mr. McElroy, who lived in the big house next to the Store, was very tall and broad. He was the only Negro I knew, except for the school principal and the visiting teachers, who wore matching pants and jacket. He never laughed, seldom smiled, and he liked to talk to Uncle Willie. He never went to church, which Bailey and I thought also proved he was a very courageous person. How great it would be to grow up like that, to be able to ignore religion, especially living next door to a woman like Momma.

I watched him with the excitement of expecting him to do anything at any time. I never tired of this, or became disappointed with him. There seemed to be an understanding between Mr. McElroy and Grandmother. This was obvious to us because he never chased us off his land. In summer’s late sunshine I often sat under the tree in his yard, surrounded by the bitter smell of its fruit and the sound of flies that fed on the berries. He sat in a swing on his porch, rocking in his brown three-piece suit.

One greeting a day was all that could be expected from Mr. McElroy. After his “Good morning, child,” or “Good afternoon, child,” he never said a word, even if I met him again on the road in front of his house or down by the well, or ran into him behind the house, escaping in a game of hide-and-seek.

He remained a mystery in my childhood. A man who owned his land and the big many-windowed house with a porch that went all around the house. An independent Black man. A rare occurrence in Stamps.

Bailey was the greatest person in my world. And the fact that he was my brother, my only brother, and I had no sisters to share him with, was such good fortune that it made me want to live a Christian life just to show God that I was grateful. I was big, elbowy, and rough, but he was small, graceful, and smooth. I was described by our friends as being brown, but he was praised for his dark black skin. His hair fell down in black curls, and my head was covered with tight, kinky curls. But he loved me.

When adults said unkind things about my features (my family’s good looks were painful to me), Bailey would look at me from across the room, and I knew that it was just a matter of time before he would take revenge. He would allow the old ladies to finish wondering where my features came from, then he would ask, in a voice like cooling bacon grease, “Oh, Mrs. Coleman, how is your son? I saw him the other day, and he looked sick enough to die.”

Astonished, the ladies would ask, “Die? From what? He ain’t sick.”

And in a voice oilier than the one before, he’d answer with no expression on his face, “From the Uglies.”

I would hold my laugh, bite my tongue, and very seriously remove even the slightest smile from my face. Later, behind the house, we’d laugh and laugh.

Bailey could be sure of very few punishments for his frequent offensive behavior, because he was the pride of the Henderson- Johnson family.

His movements were carefully calculated. He was also able to find more hours in the day than I thought existed. He finished his chores and homework, read more books than I, and played games on the side of the hill with the other children. He could even pray out loud in church, and was skilled at stealing candy from the barrel that sat under the fruit counter and Uncle Willie’s nose.

Of all the needs (there are none imaginary) a lonely child has, the one that must be satisfied, if there is going to be hope and a hope of wholeness, is the unshaking need for an unshakable God. My pretty Black brother was mine.

In Stamps the custom was to can everything that could possibly be preserved. All the neighbors helped each other to kill pigs. The ladies of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church helped Momma prepare the pork for sausage. They squeezed their fat arms elbow deep in the cut-up meat, mixed it, and gave a small taste to all obedient children who brought wood for the black stove. The men cut off the larger pieces of meat and laid them in the smokehouse to begin the preservation process.

Throughout the year, until the next frost, we took our meals from the smokehouse, the little garden close to the Store, and the shelves of canned foods. But at least twice yearly Momma would feel that as children we should have fresh meat included in our diets. We were then given money-pennies, nickels, and dimes handed to Bailey - and sent to town to buy some. Since the whites had refrigerators, their stores brought meat from Texarkana and sold it to the wealthy even in the peak of summer.

Crossing the Black area of Stamps, which to a child seemed a whole world, we were expected to stop and speak to every person we met, and Bailey felt he had to spend a few minutes playing with each friend. There was a joy in going to town with money in our pockets (Bailey’s pockets were as good as my own) and plenty of time. But the pleasure left us when we reached the white part of town.

In Stamps the segregation was so complete that most Black children didn’t really, absolutely know what whites looked like. We knew only that they were different, to be feared, and in that fear was included the hostility of the powerless against the powerful, the poor against the rich, the worker against the employer, and the poorly dressed against the well dressed.

I remember never believing that whites were really real. I couldn’t force myself to think of them as people. People were Mrs. LaGrone, Mrs. Hendricks, Momma, Lillie B, and Louise and Rex. Whitefolks couldn’t be people because their feet were too small, their skin too white, and they didn’t walk on their flat feet the way people did-they walked on their heels like horses.

People were those who lived on my side of town. I didn’t like them all, or, in fact, any of them very much, but they were people. These other strange pale creatures weren’t considered folks. They were whitefolks.

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