“Genesis” An excerpt from Sanctified, a memoir of African-American youth in ’70s St. Louis

Samuel Autman

Samuel Autman

“Ike and Tina Turner are on! ”

My mother yells from the living room, words that in our 1970 household mean black people are performing on TV and to get our butts in there. We don’t get to see many people like us on television, so this is a treat. In seconds we all scramble to get in front of the tube. In a space of months, an unprecedented slew of artists such as the Jackson Five, The Temptations, and Diana Ross and The Supremes, barnstormed the nation, performing live on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” The RCA console embedded in a dark wooden case becomes a sacred altar, the living room the church and my mother, father and baby sister are the converted on the front pew ready to worship.

Tina Turner stands out among the stage full of dancers and musicians in her gold short dress that shimmies, hair flopping around as if she were a white go-go dancer. The three Ikettes in burning pink dresses, the same bouncy hair, mirror Tina’s moves. Their eight legs gyrate as an octopus in white heels. They spin faster than any of the kids in the playground at Pine Lawn Preschool I attend, faster than the shouting women at Cherubim Missionary Baptist Church where Daddy and I sometimes visit. The all-male musicians are wearing blue suits, mostly black men with big Afros. Ike, in his pastel suit, bounces his head while picking his guitar. These are black people like we had never seen.

Even during the singing, Tina is a spinning top telling the story of leaving a good job in the city and working for some man on the river seems true. I don’t understand the song but Mama bobs her neck up and down to the beat while holding, Chung, my two- year-old sister on her lap. We are entranced.

“They must have them damned wigs nailed on! ” Daddy cackles, a beer can dangling from his hand.

For many years after that I thought a song called “Rolling on the River,” was their only song. My frame sprawls out, stomach against the floor, face and chin resting between both fists and elbows as I sink into the shaggy red carpet, scooting as close to the TV screen as I could.

“They bad asses!” my dad yells and fidgets in his chair. “Can’t nobody touch that Ike and Tina!”

“Shhhhh. Sammy!” My mother snaps. “Don’t talk like that in front of the kids. I don’t want Anthony and Chung to hear that kind of talk.”

“Sorry baby. I heard they was from St. Louis. Somebody said Tina went to school in the city. They still play over in East Louis.”

Our family luxuriates in this for a few minutes. Ed Sullivan thanks them. Ike and Tina Turner take a bow. Mama shuts the TV off. Bedtime for me and Chung in our shared room. Tomorrow is a school day for me, and Mama, day care for Chung and Daddy has to go to work.

Eden’s days come back in shards of fractured memories, contextualized conjecture and research, and my mother’s voice as the old reliable washing machine that spins and recycles for years after the events. I cling to these fleeting blissful moments from life on Crescent Avenue in Hillsdale, suburban St. Louis. We were as idyllic an American family as any with a mama and daddy, a son and a daughter and a German shepherd in the fenced backyard. Almost all of the actual pictures are gone. St. Louis County police and court records provide Suburban police reports reveal a patchwork quilt where compression is distortion and repetition alters the fabric.

Between 1910 and 1970 some six million blacks, we the children of Israel, escaped our Egypt of the South with its lynchings, fire hoses and attack dogs. We migrated from places like Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas and Texas for better jobs, homes and lives in the Promised Land of northern, eastern, Midwestern and western states. They call it the Great Migration, a great time to get out. In 1968, the year assassins’ bullets slayed Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, we were near the last of what would be a 60-year batch to flock out. Our journey takes us from Pine Bluff, Arkansas to St. Louis, first to an apartment in the city, then a tiny two-bedroom home in the suburbs. Daddy lands an assembly line job at the General Motors plant, a good job with excellent benefits for the day. Mama, armed with her new degree in education from Arkansas A&M College, finds work as a substitute teacher. In September of that year, out comes my baby sister Chung, who looked so light and bright, I thought she was white.

My father, Samuel Autman, Sr., was Ike Turner cool, a striking, lanky, mustached man who enjoyed being on the road. He frequently packed the family in his blue 1969 Ford Camaro for weekend trips to Chicago. Roadside Holiday Inns and Howard Johnson were his favorite. He insisted on keeping the motel towels as mementoes. He loved donning puffy pants and a golf hat and the best parts were careening around in golf carts on big St. Louis courses. While he played golf I’d stare so hard into in his mouth I could see puddles of spit collect as he talked, especially when he laughed hard.

My mother, Elizabeth Autman, could pass the paper sack brown test, which means her skin was light enough to get into more exclusive places that darker blacks would not, had she had access. She wore a mop of black curly hair, sometimes pressed, sometimes permed. A trademark toothy smile made her teeth look like dentures. The stream of words from Mama’s lips was nonstop: “Get in the house! ” “Stop pulling on that dog’s tail! ” “Get off that Krazy Kar! ” A Krazy Kar was a plastic children’s toy that allowed me to sit in our driveway and spin in circles for hours. She once told me, “If you keep spinning around like that your head’s gonna fall off.”

Eden’s days come back in shards of fractured memories, contextualized conjecture and research … a patchwork quilt where compression is distortion and repetition alters the fabric.

A picture rare from that season freezes my parents in what looks like their best selves in a best moment. They’re sitting in a tavern or nightclub circa 1969 in St. Louis. My father, wearing a dark suit, matching tie and white shirt wraps his left arm around my mother. Mama, right next to him, has never looked more joyous and radiant. Her skin, flawless and beaming a message to whoever took the picture, “Wait. Let me lean my head so you capture my best side.” The look in her eyes is playful and the mood, happy: Ike and Tina on stage before the camera. Next to Mama sits her half sister, Aunt Earselean, who looks happier than my parents. From the big cheeky grin, she had already knocked back a few drinks. More would no doubt come. The women hold drinks in a small glasses. Daddy squeezes a bottle of Schlitz Malt Liquor. The people on the image are beautiful, stylish, young and hopeful, tangible proof that there had been happy times.

Our tiny new two-bedroom red brick house on Crescent Avenue was near the northwest corner of the street, indistinguishable from the other houses on the block. They were neat, with 15-by-15 foot front yards; rather, grass patches that could be mowed in 15 minutes. From the street view it had a small porch with two brick columns and a wooden door, which opened directly into our living room. Mama, in her excitement, purchased bright red carpet put on the floor and picked floral curtains that matched the new couch, love seat and chair. All of the appliances in the kitchen were new. The walls were green and white with a dinette set, new wooden cabinets and a Formica countertop. The next doorway led to the main hallway. At the far end of the hall stood the bathroom. The bedroom I shared with Chung was right across the hall from Mama and Daddy’s. We had bunk beds. I slept on top. Sometimes we could hear Mama and Daddy in their room fighting even when they had their door closed.

The women hold drinks in a small glasses. Daddy squeezes a bottle of Schlitz Malt Liquor. The people on the image are beautiful, stylish, young and hopeful, tangible proof that there had been happy times.

Chung and I splashed around in a plastic blue pool my father bought. The yard was contained by an aluminum fence that was about my height. For a while we had a white and black German shepherd named Trixie. Once while running around in the backyard, I pulled on the dog’s tail and she snapped at me. Mama had Daddy get rid of Trixie shortly after that. Mama would stand on the porch and watch us and while Daddy played around in the water with his feet ankle deep in the water. That was the first and only house my parents owned together. I didn’t think we were poor or rich, just the only family I knew. Whatever we had it enticed dozens of aunts and uncles and their children to visit often.

• • •

“Anthony, get up,” yells Aunt Louise, Mama’s second youngest sister who sometimes lived with us. “It’s time to go to Wellston.” As a boy I went by my middle name.

I wash up, gobble cereal and milk and she grabs my hand. We walk several blocks to Easton Avenue for a full day of shopping in an area called Wellston. This shopping district with blocks and blocks of wig, clothing and drug stores, loomed larger than downtown St. Louis because it was closer to our house. I thought it was downtown. Aunt Louise, a chunky former cheerleader with big thighs and lips, moved from Grady to the St. Louis area to live with us after finishing high school. Many aunts and uncles from both sides either live with or visit us from the Mississippi Delta. They snap their fingers, suck beers, do a dance called the Funky Chicken to James Brown and Aretha Franklin records in our living room. My mother’s side comes to blows a lot with my father’s side. I admire Uncle Jeff, one of my father’s brothers who sneaks out into the night.

“Do you see this right here,” Mama says in a stern voice while holding a man’s white bloodstained underwear in her hands.

We stand next to the washing machine, her skin a paper sack brown, her mop of black curly hair pulled back in a rag. I don’t know what Mama means.

The underwear belongs to Uncle Jeff, a 6-foot-7 guy who Mama calls “funny.” On Friday and Saturday nights he slipped out to a world of taverns, cigarettes and liquor with friends. He tiptoes back into the house while our family sleeps.

“Do you see this right here,” she says, lifting the bloody underwear from the rest of the laundry pile making plain the red stains in the center of his shorts. “This is what happens when you let men get you.”

Once I saw skinny women on TV walking down a runway with their hands on their hips sashaying from side to side. The way these women moved down the aisle excite and spark something in me. My father sees me with my hands on my hips. The sidewalk was my runway. He stops me, pinches my arm and warns, “Son, don’t let me see you do that again!”

We infrequently attend church in those Hillsdale days. My father once scooped me up, set me in his 1969 blue Ford Camaro and drove to Cherubim Missionary Baptist Church. We are seated near the front. Ladies are twirling, shouting, jerking and ultimately convulsing on the floor almost as if possessed by something. The ushers, women in white nurse’s uniforms wearing handkerchiefs on their heads and white gloves, toss sheets to cover the fainting women. It’s exciting and scary. The organ, the choir and the drums keep people’s emotions in an electric tizzy. “What’s happening daddy?” I ask. “These women are catching the Spirit,” as he pats me on the head. “You’ll be all right.” The preacher man jumps up wearing what looked like a long flowing Batman robe as he waves his fist and the Bible. People shout back at him. Everybody gets excited, even my father.

“Do you see this right here,” Mama says in a stern voice while holding a man’s white bloodstained underwear in her hands. We stand next to the washing machine, her skin a paper sack brown, her mop of black curly hair pulled back in a rag. I don’t know what Mama means.

Our lives looked good to the outside world, especially to my cousins, but the world Mama experienced sometimes betrayed the pictures. The invisible things were becoming visible. Daddy always seemed to be drinking some orange juice on ice in a glass or sipping on a cup of coffee. Neither of her parents drank, so she didn’t know he was always drinking alcohol until she started to discover empty gin and vodka bottles in the bottom of the trash bags. “What kind of a damn woman digs through trash? That beats all I’ve ever heard! My own mama don’t pull no shit like that.” Excessive drinking gave way to other things.

“Sammy! Have you peed in the bed?”

“What? No I ain’t peed in the bed, you crazy?”

“Well, I know I didn’t do it. You had to do it. Who else would have done it?”

“Elizabeth, are you blaming me for something you did?”

“I can’t believe a grown ass man would be peeing in the bed. I ain’t never heard of anything like that.”

That’s when the licks, the seeds of what would unravel everything, began. He’d hit her with a belt, his fist, anything nearby. Chung and I never saw this because it happened behind closed doors. Bedroom walls were like tissue paper to our ears. Night after night I could hear Mama yelling, “Stop it, Sammy! Don’t hit me!”

Drunk one fall night in 1971, Daddy became convinced Mama was flirting with another man at a restaurant. When he got home, he snatched the phone off the wall, knocked over furniture and hit her. Chung and I were in our room shaking and crying. Terror seized me that night. I hated these fights because Mama repeatedly screamed “Sammy, don’t hit me no more! Sammy, stop hitting me.” That night, Daddy pulled out a 22. Magnum revolver she didn’t know he had in the house. It went off. Mama ran outside to get away from him and he followed. He fired again. This time the bullet hit the street lamp, missing her. “You bitch, if you leave don’t ever come back!” Chung and I ran to window to see what was happening. Sirens and police cars swarmed the front of the house.

Mama went to stay with cousin Betty and her husband Willie for about a week, hoping things would cool off. By then she was terrified of him. Daily she came to the house hoping to get us from him. He changed the locks and prevented her from getting back inside or near us. Each time she came back, he produced his revolver and told her to get back. “You ain’t never gonna see these kids again.”

While Mama was gone, Daddy’s mother, Grandma Ella Mae, a scary looking woman with a lazy eye and locks of gray hair sticking out from a rag she tied to her head, showed up from Rayville. She and Daddy scurried as they stuffed our small shoes, socks, underwear, shirts, pants and dresses into a big trunk.

“What we doing, Daddy?” I asked.

“You and your sister wanna go visit grandma for a while?”

“Yeah!”

Deep into the night, we waved goodbye to Daddy as Grandma Ella Mae grabbed me and Chung by the hand and boarded a Continental Trailways Bus bound for Monroe, Louisiana. Daddy had taken us on many family trips in his car we were used to traveling. The only thing different about this time was not being with Mama or Daddy. I thought of it as a fun adventure.

Samuel Autman

Samuel Autman is Assistant Professor of English at DePauw University. His essay “A Dash of Pepper in the Snow” won the Tara Masih Intercultural Essay contest and appears in The Chalk Circle: Prizewinning Intercultural Essays anthology. “A Walk Through the Neighborhood,” excerpted from Sanctified: A Memoir was recently produced and directed as a short film, “A Long Walk.” Autman’s other writings have been published in Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction, The Huffington Post, Postcard Memoirs, I’m Black and I Travel and The St. Louis Beacon. He is represented by a patient agent at the David Black Literary Agency in New York City.

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