This is a narrative of what it was like for those of us born in the thirties. Our parents had come from Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, and many other southern states where the whites were perverse and inhuman in their treatment of blacks. But mostly they came from Mississippi. They came to the big cities armed only with glorious fantasies about a new and better world, hoping to find the dignity that had been denied them, hoping to find the self-respect that had been cut out of them. They came north, and we were the children born in the place they had escaped to—Chicago.
You know, we were so young that we did not know we were supposed to be poor. We were so young and excited with the life we knew that we had not yet learned we were the ones who were supposed to be deprived. We were even so young that sometimes we forgot we were supposed to be hungry, because we were just too busy living.
I can remember one spring, after the snow had finally seeped into the earth, and the mud in the vacant lots had become dirt again, how we would move over those lots cautiously, like the old ragman, our eyes sparkling with enthusiasm, our minds pulsating with the thrill of finds we surely knew would be there because there had been a whole winter of snow covering up the treasures that grownups had discarded—unknowingly, to our advantage. Things that we needed because they were treasures and were of value to us.
There would be razor blades, some broken in half, some whole, all rusty: a new metal.
“Careful, Sam. Don’t cut yourself, man. If you do, man, your whole hand’ll rot off.”
A bottle! God, a bottle like we had never seen.
“I bet some ole rich white lady came along here and threw it away.”
“I bet she did. Bet it was full of some rich perfume or somethin. Let’s see if we can find the top.”
“Here’s a top.”
“Naw. Too big.”
“I bet she kept the top.”
“Ain’t no rich lady been by here.”
“Well, I don’t care. I know what I’m gonna do with it anyway, so it don’t matter none. I’m gonna take it home to Mama. She’ll like it. She ain’t never had no bottle like this before.”
Maybe we would find a bullet, half a scissors, the standard, bigname pop bottles which we would hoard to be returned to the school store or the grocery store or the drugstore one or two at a time only—one or two at a time because the store owners never seemed to like giving up the deposit and the fewer the bottles, the less they would grumble. And always, reminding us of the problems of the grownups, there would be the wine bottles. Having the wine bottles available to us at that time, at that time when we were very young, when we were young enough for vacant lots and alleys to be places of joy, was really a blessing because we could smash them against the sides of the brick buildings that helped protect our lot. Sometimes we smashed them with such force that little slivers of glass sprang back in our direction. We dodged them, laughing, saying, “Ain’t no wine bottle fast enough to catch me.”
We were so young and excited with the life we knew that we had not yet learned we were the ones who were supposed to be deprived. We were even so young that sometimes we forgot we were supposed to be hungry, because we were just too busy living.
The thought of the slivers of glass striking back at us excited us no end, and we moved closer to the wall and smashed them with even more force. Once, though, a wine bottle got even with me as a fragment of it ripped through my trousers and imbedded itself in my thigh. But I did not cry out. I just went on smashing the damn things against the wall because I hated them. I did not cry until later in the day when, safely hidden behind the locked bathroom door of our apartment, I dug it out with one of my mother’s needles. I could not have let the others know that I hadn’t moved quickly enough to dodge the glass. Many years later I learned that each of us at one time or another had lost the battle with the flying glass. But those admissions came later, when we were secure in our manhood.
Sometimes we’d spend as much as twenty or thirty minutes breaking wine bottles and then return to treasure searching. And, just as we’d begin to tire of it, someone would find a dime-store ring, or a part of a watch, and we would return to our game with charged enthusiasm. Tin cans we stocked at the edge of the lot. There would be time for them later on. The rusty cans were treasures for those even smaller than us, because their sides were weak, and when the little ones slammed their heels down into them, fitting the cans to their shoes, the cans gave way easily, and off they’d go down the alley, just like us, fitted with a pair of heels that sometimes sent sparks flying and always sounded the message of children on the move.
There was a cardboard box that we had avoided, partly out of fear and partly because we were saving it for later.
One of the boys raised it, then reached in and came out yelling, “Look. A basket.”
“Quick, get the band off it and you got the first loop of the year.”
“Here. You can use my stick. But remember, I get the first turn after you.”
And he would be gone from the lot for a while, the stick in his hand, the loop spinning along at his side, stick tapping it gently on its way, again, again, again.
But the rest of us were still there; glass everywhere, rusty nails, more cans, a gas can!
“Hey, maybe Mr. Branch’Il buy it from us!”
“Naw. He’s got enough gas cans.”
“Don’t gas stations always need new cans for kerosene, though?”
“Huh? Don’t they?”
“Naw, you dummy. They sell it in bottles.”
“I know that. But sometimes people don’t have bottles and still wanta buy kerosene.”
“They use bottles.”
“Hey,” somebody would say, “let’s go kill rats.”
A unanimous roar of approval would go up and we would begin searching for sticks and bricks. Once sufficiently armed, we would leave our land of treasures and move down the alley toward one of the very best games we knew.
Many years later I learned that each of us at one time or another had lost the battle with the flying glass. But those admissions came later, when we were secure in our manhood.
Each of us had relatives who had been either bitten by rats or terribly frightened by them. There was the story of the friend who used to live in the neighborhood but whose parents moved out when his baby sister had her right ear eaten away by one of them. There was also the story we whispered among ourselves about the grandmother of one of the group, who was said to have cooked her very best stew from rats she trapped in her pantry.
Almost from infancy we had been fighting them: in our sleep, fighting the noise they made in the walls as they chewed their way through the plaster to get at what few provisions we had; in our alleys, our Black Boulevards, fighting to get them out of the garbage and into their holes so we could play a game of stickball with no fear of being bitten while standing on second or third base. Outside of the white insurance men who made their rounds daily collecting quarters and half dollars for the burial policies our parents paid for over and over, making the insurance companies richer and ending with our parents in their old age having almost enough money to pay the price of a pine-box funeral, outside of those strange little white peddlers who came into the neighborhood every week and trapped our mothers with flashy dresses, petticoats, slips and shoes, supposedly half-priced (“No-money-down, lady…” but the records were kept by the salesmen in their payment books, and the payments never ended), outside of the white men from the telephone company who came far too often to take away someone’s telephone, outside of these strangers who moved among us with all the arrogance and authority of giants, we hated the rats most.
We did not always win against them, but we kept fighting because we knew if we did not continue killing them they would soon make the alleys unsafe even for us. Once a new boy moved into the neighborhood with a BB gun, and with the large supply of ammunition he had we killed two hundred rats in one day. We made bows and used umbrella staves for arrows and got so good with them that we only missed about two-thirds of the time.
But the best way to kill them was with bricks and clubs. We’d walk quietly down the alley, our little platoon advancing on the army of rats, plowing in the summertime through mounds of junk piled against the fences (always there because the garbage trucks came through so seldom), until we reached a mound that gave off sounds of their activity. We would surround it, leaving only the fence as their escape route, look at each other, nervous, excited, our blood blasting away inside our temples. Then one of us would poke a stick into the pile of garbage, and, with our anxiety mounting, we would wait for them to react.
The rats had already sensed our presence and had grown silent, waiting for the danger to pass. The stick would go in again, and then, quickly; they would frantically dig their way farther into the garbage. They would not come out. Another stick, and finally a gray thing, its teeth glistening like daggers in the early morning sun, would spring from the pile and charge one of us with all the rage and hostility of the killer it was. A brick would miss it, but a club would catch the thing in midair just as it was about to dig its teeth into someone’s leg. Its insides would explode out of it and blood would shoot into the air like a spurt from a fountain. Another one was out. A brick would stun it and then the clubs would beat down as if we were trying to grind it into dust. Two others began climbing the fence and we left that fence stained with their blood. And then, as often happened, the biggest and oldest of them dashed between us and quickly disappeared into another pile of garbage. Including his tail, he was at least two feet long and as fat as any cat in the neighborhood, and even though we chased him, spreading the pile he had hidden in all over the alley, he was able to escape by squeezing through a small hole in the fence. It seemed to us that we had been trying to kill that one rat for years, but there were so many two feet long that we could never be sure if it was the same rat.
We’d walk quietly down the alley, our little platoon advancing on the army of rats, plowing in the summertime through mounds of junk piled against the fences (always there because the garbage trucks came through so seldom), until we reached a mound that gave off sounds of their activity.
We were often victorious, but once in a while the rats would get the better of us: a child would be bitten by one of them. Sometimes we would club the rat away from his leg. Sometimes we would all run home crying, afraid of them all over again and thankful that it was someone else who had felt the needlelike teeth, and sometimes we would carry our crying friend home to his mother, hoping that he would not have to go through the torture of the shots.
Then, after our parents finally let us out again, we would group around a light pole on the street, or a fire hydrant, propping our feet on it, pretending to be grownup, waiting for the news from the hospital about our wounded comrade.
But sometimes, even in the midst of the hunt, we would hear the calls of the merchants, or the youth on the comer selling papers:
A few merchants:
“I got em green. I got em ripe.”
“Ice . . . Iceman.”
“Eggman . . . Chickens.”
“I got em green. I got em ripe.”
The newsboy: “Chi-cag-ooo De-fennn-da.”
It would be a hot summer day. It was always another hot summer day, with the heat seeming to rise up from the sidewalks, from the tarred streets, from foods fermenting in the garbage, from the grassless yards and weed-filled vacant lots.
Now it was later in the day. Window shades would go up. People would come out on their porches, stretch, survey the hot, drab ugliness they had seen for years, and return to their sweltering apartments that trapped the heat and held it until, finally, chilling winds from the lake worked their way beyond the white people who lived where it was cool all the way west to where we lived. Women would put cards in their kitchen windows that informed the iceman of their needs—just how many pounds of ice they wanted. Other children who had not yet done their chores would be seen emptying the pans that held the remains of twenty-five or fifty pounds of ice over the banister down into the backyard.
But, no matter how hot it was, we were determined to stay outdoors as long as we could, until the voices of our mothers began calling us to lunch and then supper—or, in the case of some of us, until we felt our sisters or brothers might have prepared supper of black-eyed peas and cornbread. And for some it was only the bread.
This was all a long, long time ago, you see, before the days of shopping centers and supermarkets. For those of us who lived in that neighborhood, it was even before the age of refrigerators. It was the age of the icebox!
So, at the sound of our distinguished merchants, our musical alley merchants, we would forget about the rats and run through our alleys seeking out the men who brought the merchandise to our doors.
This was all a long, long time ago, you see, before the days of shopping centers and supermarkets. For those of us who lived in that neighborhood, it was even before the age of refrigerators. It was the age of the icebox!
The excitement of the arrival of the merchants gave us another game, as we ran through the debris in much the same way as one might run through shallow water at the beach. It wasn’t so bad in the winter, but in the summer one had to fight the gnats and flies and mosquitoes and rats and cats and dogs. The flies would take wing as we passed through their feeding ground and the noise was horrendous, like a low-flying airplane. I sometimes think we were the breeding place of flies and rats for the entire city.
In school we had read stories about children in the country, but they had nothing on us. They could run through their tall grass, playing where nature was kindest, and we could run through our garbage, and since we had all been immunized naturally, we were totally unaffected by those little microscopic fellows that so terrified the white people who had clean alleys—alleys that were even paved! We could run through our tall garbage-grass where Mother Nature, in a negative sort of way, was kind to us, too.
And when we heard the deep voice of Sampson calling, “Ice. Iceman,” we would run even faster because he was the man we all wanted to be like. We’d cut through yards, across streets, in front of traffic, through other alleys until we found him. We’d meet the ice truck and ride through our Black Boulevards as honored guests, snatching little chips of ice whenever Sampson would cut off a block with the ice pick. We all shared the same admiration for the giant in our lives. And I guess worshiping him as we did was a bit strange when one realizes that Sampson had to work harder than anyone else in our world. Sometimes he’d let us help. He’d say, “Y’all gotta work for your ride.” Four or five of us would scramble into the truck and push and strain for what seemed like an hour just to get the block of ice close enough to the edge of the truck so he could lean in, snag it with his tongs—one hundred pounds of ice—run his pick down the seams, tick-tick-tick, and a fifty-pound block would slide over to the side of the truck. He’d swing his tongs again, clamp them down on the ice and sling it over his shoulder like it was only a loaf of bread, all so effortlessly that his breathing didn’t alter in the slightest.
The flies would take wing as we passed through their feeding ground and the noise was horrendous, like a low-flying airplane. I sometimes think we were the breeding place of flies and rats for the entire city.
His muscles would rise up like swells and little beads of perspiration, giving the effect of liquid silver, rolled over those black swells. He could do anything with his muscles. He used to make his biceps dance while we provided the musical accompaniment with our clapping hands.
Sampson also let us take our punching exercises on his muscular abdomen. He’d line us up and let us hit him in the stomach as hard as we could. And with each earth-shattering blow he’d rear back and laugh his deep warm laugh.
But one day when we were trying to crash his abdominal wall one of the smaller guys wanted to have his turn. He stepped up, took careful aim and swung as hard as he could. Sampson had already started laughing long before the blow landed, but his loud husky laugh changed to a soprano’s scream as he grabbed his groin and fell to the ground.
We were shocked, so shocked that we could not move for all of one minute. We just knew that even his testicles were made of solid muscle.
“I got Sampson. I knocked Sampson down!” the little one screamed as he ran down the alley, the victory just too overwhelming for his young years.
Sampson remained our hero, however, even though he no longer let us take punching exercises on his abdomen. I think, as I look back now on those years, that the warmest feeling of my childhood, there in that strange city that I still call home, surely must have been the coolness of sitting inside an ice truck on a hot summer day as Sampson allowed us to think we were helping him.
When we left Sampson we’d head on to other alleys, following the sounds of the people we wanted to see.
“Watermelon. Get your sweet, red, ripe watermelons here.”
“Fish. Fishman. I got your catfish-whitefish.”
“I got perch, blue gills, carp. Fishman.”
“Eggs. Fresh eggs. Chickens. Young chickens. You got the skillet I got the chickens. Eggman.”
And then the one with the grand stock and the old cart, drawn by a horse that knew the route so well that he would wander just far enough ahead to a place where his master would probably make a sale and then stop.
“Vegetable man. Vegetable man. Got your pretty green vegetables. I got em green. I got em ripe. I got your greens, lady. I got your string beans. I got your black-eyed peas. My greens is good, lady. My greens so good they’re sweet, lady.”
Then a woman would call down to him. “Vegetable man.”
“Yes, ma’am,” be would answer, ready to sing the chorus that went along with the impending sale.
“Got any okra?”
“Do I got okra! Yes, ma’am. I sure do got okra,” he would answer. “I got the best okra in Chicago. My okra’s as good as okra from heaven.”
And the woman, knowing what was to come, would try to stop him. “Oh, shut yo mouf up, man, and bring it on up here then.”
“Yes, ma’am, I sure will.”
“Act like a woman’s got all day t’ stand here talkin t’ you.”
But he was not to be outdone. Walking up the stairs he would stop on each landing and sing the lines that went with the purchase: “Lady says she wants okra. Do I got okra! I got the best okra in the world. Vegetable man! Here’s your vegetable man! I got em green. I got em ripe. I got fresh greens and cabbage and carrots. I got em green. I got em ripe.”
And while he was gone from his truck the bravest of the lot would snatch a bunch of carrots and we would all dash away giggling.
Running, we could still hear his words, although they were becoming soft as snow as we crossed another street into another alley: “I got em green. I got em ripe. I got em green. I got em ripe.”
I think, as I look back now on those years, that the warmest feeling of my childhood, there in that strange city that I still call home, surely must have been the coolness of sitting inside an ice truck on a hot summer day as Sampson allowed us to think we were helping him.
Finally we’d stop in a vacant lot and play a game we had invented. I don’t have any idea who started it. An old broom or mop handle was all we needed. Then we would put tar on the end of it. In the summer the tar on the streets melted and all we had to do was dig it up with the stick or a piece of glass or sometimes, on very hot days, with our fingers. The tar furnished the necessary weight at the tip. (Besides that, it was good to chew.)
Then two boys would stand at either end of the vacant lot facing each other. We had never even so much as heard of the act of javelin throwing, but we were mastering it. Our game, however, was not just throwing the stick. The real challenge was that we had to catch the stick in flight. No one person was any better or worse at this game than another. Now that I think about it, I realize how unusual we were. There was no need to compete because we liked each other so much. There was only the need to excel like everyone else and be part of our strange black world where excellence was only average.
When we tired of this game, we went on to kick the can, or stick ball, or racing. And, when it was too hot, we would sit under someone’s porch and play root the peg, or just sit around under a tree talking about the world as we knew it and how we were determined not to take what our parents had taken from white people, how we were going to fight.
Sometimes we left the neighborhood. The beach was several miles east of us. When the heat bad become totally unbearable, we would start the long walk over Sixty-third Street to the lake. If we were very lucky and had saved a little money, we could ride the streetcar back. That way we didn’t have to fight the white boys again. But most of the time there was no money so we walked back over the same street we had come earlier that day and sometimes we didn’t even have to fight. Sometimes.
A few years before we were able to go to the beach by ourselves, back in the time when our parents took us on some festive occasion like Memorial Day or the Fourth of July, we bad been forced to remain on one side of the cyclone fence that separated us from the whites. But now we were older, and when the police approached us to tell us to get back to “our” side of the fence, we took to the water.
Now that I think about it, I realize how unusual we were. There was no need to compete because we liked each other so much. There was only the need to excel like everyone else and be part of our strange black world where excellence was only average.
Finally they gave up, confident that we were, as the man in charge put it, “just a bunch of crazy niggers.” And that year we showed him just how crazy we were when we tore the goddamned fence down!
The charge was destruction of city property. But by now there were many of us, and we were represented by a lawyer who seemed to enjoy representing Negroes who bad no money (“A dirty commie bastard,” one of the policemen whispered), so that the charges were dropped and the fence was gone forever.
There were cool times, too. When the rains came, in the spring and in the fall.
Sometimes it rained so hard that the sewers plugged up within three minutes. We would be outside, playing in a vacant lot, and before we could reach cover we were soaked, and the lot, weeds worn down and away by our persistent feet, was turned to mud. The rain fell like heavy hands on a drum, and the mud thinned and colored the rain.
We ran. We ran to shelter. And no matter how fast we ran, we could never keep time with the rapid cadence of the thousands, of the millions, of raindrops. The rain came on us like a great mysterious, cleansing thing that cleared the air of all dust and brightened and re-colored things with a kind of gentle rendering that lasted for days; that sometimes lasted long enough for us to forget how dirty things bad been before it had come.
The sewers were totally ineffective, and we were delighted, because it meant that we had pools of water for sailing our popsiclestick boats, the tarred streets and curbs refusing to let the water escape. Those of us who were truly adventurous wandered into the vacant lot and sailed our tiny cruisers on much more lavish waters.
We sang songs about chasing the rain away, and we had little sayings that had been passed on from generation to generation. When there was a flash of lightning that streaked across the sky, a child would say, ”The devil’s beatin his wife.” And when the deafening explosion of thunder followed, another child would reply, “Yeah, man, but she’s fightin back.”
I think of spring rain as being always a blessing, cooling the city with the sweet breezes from the lake. But I cannot forget the icy rain that fell in the fall, chilling us through our heavy wool jackets and two sweaters and a shirt, and even through our long underwear. We laughed at each other, mocking the one who shivered the most and then ultimately praising him. “Man, this cat keeps himself warm by shiverin. Must be the warmest cat outside today.”
The rain came on us like a great mysterious, cleansing thing that cleared the air of all dust and brightened and re-colored things with a kind of gentle rendering that lasted for days; that sometimes lasted long enough for us to forget how dirty things bad been before it had come.
The spring rains would go on for about two months, and during that time we were distracted from the unpleasantness inside by the brightness and beauty the rain created outside. (Even weeds growing six feet high in a vacant lot can be beautiful when there is nothing else growing.) The rains would continue and we would try to soak them into our souls because soon the heat of summer would be with us, and with it would come the extreme depression of the gray grit cloud that always hovered over our city.
Of all the seasons, winter was the most impressive. It was always beautiful in the winter. Everything was clean and smelled even better than it did after a spring rain. The temperature was often zero or below, and with holes in our shoes and no rubbers, our feet were always wet and cold. But it was a good time of year. Most of us carried pieces of newspaper in our pockets, and when the paper in our shoes became too wet we would step inside someone’s doorway and change the expendable linings. There was snow everywhere and the half dozen or so sleds on the block were enough to accommodate the thirty or forty children.
Snow plows never came through our neighborhood. It was good they didn’t because the snow was a barrier against a reality we were glad not to face. I thank God it snowed as much as it did when we were young.
In the alleys the snow packed down hard on the mounds of garbage and provided us with hills for sliding. It leveled the uneven sidewalks. It even painted the buildings and filled the holes in the streets and in yards and laid lawns, for once, over all the neighborhood. It was clean. It was pure. It was good.
With the coming of the snow, life became gentler as sounds became muffled. The snow was so special that all the children in the neighborhood respected its holiness and played somewhat more quietly.
Sampson would still come through three days a week, but he didn’t sell much ice now. Who needed ice when every window sill was a refrigerator? The other four days of the week he would deliver coal. But there was one very cold winter when he figured out a way to sell both at the same time. He built wooden platforms on both sides of his truck and he lined them with ice and then covered the ice with canvas so it would not get coal dust on it. And then, inside the truck, he dumped two or three tons of coal. He still did not sell much ice, but at least he was able to travel the alleys that year with ice to offer, and therefore in good conscience.
When we were very young we ate the snow. Later, we washed girls’ faces in it. And when we were older we rolled it up in little balls and threw them at shiny new cars driven by white people passing through our neighborhood on their way to work.
When there was a flash of lightning that streaked across the sky, a child would say, ”The devil’s beatin his wife.” And when the deafening explosion of thunder followed, another child would reply, “Yeah, man, but she’s fightin back.”
It was indeed beautiful in the winter. I remember one year the fresh snow was so high that as we ran down the wavy path that led to the front of the buildings we had to jump up to see over the top. And it was always clean! An empty wine bottle was swallowed up by it, and tucked away so we would not have to see it for a while. Old Jesse, who was always vomiting his insides up early in the morning for us to see on the way to school, was temporarily forgotten because the snow covered over his chili-mack and sweetened the air again. Inside the doorways of the buildings the urine smell was still there, but not outside in the gangways like it was the rest of the year. Outside, it smelled like it did everywhere else in the city; like it smelled where people had jobs and money. Outside, it was like a dream and it was a pleasure to get soaked with snow; chilled and shivering until we could stand it no longer. And even then we did not want to go in, for inside was a reality that no climatic conditions could change. Even on Christmas Day, with snow everywhere, and a few toys under the trees and the radio playing Christmas music, and people saying, “God bless you,” everywhere in the world, even on Christmas Day when it grew late and we stepped inside our dungeons we realized that those Godbless-yous were not meant for us.
• • •
I don’t remember a goddamn thing except the bedbugs, roaches and rats.
Woke up with them bedbugs crawlin round my bed.
Woke up with them bedbugs diggin through my head.
Jumped outta bed stompin on the floor,
Turned and started headin for the door.
Man, with all them bites I knew I’d never las,
Cause them crazy bedbugs was tearin up my ass.
Got to the door and turned around
And what-the-hell did I see!
One decked out just like a clown,
Callin after me.
Ain’t no use to run, man,
Or jump up and down on the floor.
C’mon back to bed, my man.
We ain’t gonna bite you no more.
It was a song we sang. My first really important recollection of life on the south side of Chicago was the time I sang that song about bedbugs with a new friend named George Washington Benjamin Brown.
George and I had met earlier that day. My family had moved into the neighborhood only the night before. We always moved at night to escape from one roach- and rodent-infested apartment to another, always to leave owing the previous landlord one or two months’ rent. This is pretty much the way it was for all of us at that time. In later years black people would move at night for a different reason. They would move at night because they knew if the whites saw them coming into “their” neighborhood during the daylight hours, they would unite in violence to protect their property (more precious to them than human life) against the new and different arrivals.
Every black family had a friend who either owned or could borrow a car. And sometimes they were even able to get the boss’s coal truck. My father too had such a friend, and late one night I opened my eyes to an experience that was becoming increasingly frequent but no less frightening than it had been the fust time it happened. It was the terror of seeing almost everything familiar gone, and only my bed remaining. The apartment was dark and there were strange voices. My mother, who had no idea that I was frightened, told me it was time to get dressed and then helped me into my things in absolute silence. Finally, realizing that I was trembling, she said, “You’ll be all right, Ernie, when we get to our new house. We didn’t want to build a fire cause we didn’t want to waste the coal.”
Then I would know what it was about, but I would continue trembling. I was already afraid of my new neighbors. And that night on the way to the new apartment I began constructing my defenses. This time when they played the dozens with me and began talking about my mother, I would cut them deeper. I began thinking of the dirtiest things I could imagine to throw back at them about their mothers when they said the first thing about mine.
In later years black people would move at night for a different reason. They would move at night because they knew if the whites saw them coming into “their” neighborhood during the daylight hours, they would unite in violence to protect their property (more precious to them than human life) against the new and different arrivals.
“Your mama eats cat shit.”
No, that was weak.
“Your mama’s a wino whore and fucks for drinks.”
A little better, but still not strong enough. I was good at signifying. I knew at least thirty insulting remarks that I was sure no one in this new neighborhood had ever heard, but I wanted still one more to make sure that I would be the best they had ever met.
“You’re mama goes to the graveyard every night and fucks the dead.”
Ah, I had the best one ever. Anyone who started playing the dozens with me would be left in tears, unable to fight. And if they did want to fight . . . well, that was fine, too. I was pretty big for my age and I had never lost a fight.
I was up early and out of the house as soon as I finished my oatmeal. There had to be trouble. There always was. I went out back through the yard and into the alley to check out the back fence. If I was being chased by a gang I couldn’t waste time looking for my yard. Out front I studied the block carefully. It was important to be familiar with as much as possible that first day, because then people got the feeling that you really knew your way around. I pretended I was a general looking over the battlefield before I attacked. On guard, I started walking toward a boy I had seen sitting on a porch only to houses from mine, reminding myself that I was out front and we lived on the second floor in the rear of the building. I had forgotten to see if there was any way to get into our place from the front. Ah, the hell with it, I thought, ain’t nobody gonna make me run no way.
I walked past the boy on the porch, turning my head slightly so I could see what his movements were.
“Hey,” he called.
I stopped, turned around slowly, letting my right shoulder droop slightly below the left one, being as cool as I could, and said, “Yeah?”
“You jes move in?”
“Where you from?”
“Forty-third and Federal.”
He looked startled, but then he set his face in a determined, almost angry expression, picked at his teeth with the nub of a fingernail, and nodded. “Yeah?” he said.
And I replied, “Yeah,” nodding like the hustlers I had seen on so many comers in my old neighborhood. I liked him. He was really cool. But his eyes were so old, so angry even then that I tightened up, ready for the first fight in the new neighborhood.
“Yeah, man, they got some bad cats down that way. Heard a lot about that neighborhood.”
“I’m hip,” I said. “And some big rats, too!” I let the slightest smile come over my face and he did the same.
He got up from the porch and came to meet me, scratching all the while. “My name’s George.”
We did not shake hands.
“Washington,” he continued. “Johnson.”
“George Washington Benjamin?”
He smiled and straightened up from his hip stance and was two inches taller than me. I straightened up too, and we were the same height again. Then we both sank back into our hip stances. George continued scratching.
“George Washington Benjamin Brown,” he said proudly.
“Wow,” I said. “Man, that’s some name. George Washington Benjamin Brown. Yeah, that’s some name you got there, man.”
“Yeah,” he said. We began walking down the street away from our apartment buildings. “It might be some name,” he said, scratching the back of his neck now, “but it don’t keep them goddamn bedbugs away from me.”
I started singing. “Woke up with the bedbugs crawlin round my bed.”
George took the next line. “Woke up with them bedbugs digging through my head.”
“Jumped outta bed stompin on the floor.”
“Turned and started headin for the door.”
“Man, with all them bites I knew I’d never las.”
“Cause them crazy bedbugs was tearin up my ass.”
We laughed and finished the song together was we turned into the alley.
“You all right, Ernie.”
“You all right yourself, George Washington Benjamin Brown.”
He smiled because he was very proud of his name. He was named after his great-grandfather, a powerful man who had worked the river boats on the Mississippi River when he was a slave. George told me that his great-grandfather knew the river “better’n any ole hunkie captain.” And, when the Civil War broke out, the old man escaped from the man who had bought him, worked his way up north and joined the Union navy. By the time the war ended, he was a Union naval officer, the captain of his own boat. I, too, would have been proud to be named after such a man.
“Hey, man,” George said casually, “how’d you get to be all crippled?”
I tensed up again, waiting for the insults. But none came. George was genuinely concerned.
I told him. It wasn’t difficult to talk about. I had done it several times before. I told him the same story I had told others. I was very young when it happened. I remember there was the slightest bit of light from the apartment next door coming through the window of the bedroom where my mother, my father, and I slept. We were roomers in the apartment of an old couple, and although we had the freedom to use their kitchen and bathroom, this was the only room that we could call ours. I remember waking up and seeing a rat that was so big it crowded my crib. After it took up its position, blocking out most of what little light there was, it just sat there staring at me. At first only its eyes shone clearly, but gradually I could see that it was dark gray with a white spot on the top of its head. It was still for a while longer, as if it wanted to make sure everyone was asleep. Then, twitching its whiskers nervously, it raised its head and looked around the room. When it was satisfied that it was safe, it opened its mouth and I saw diamondlike teeth and heard the faintest sounds as it inched closer to my leg and finally touched me with those sparkling teeth. The teeth disappeared into the flesh of my leg, and before I felt the pain, I saw my blood color those teeth and gush out of the rat’s mouth onto the bed as the monstrous thing tugged viciously at my leg, trying to take part of me away with it. I screamed and my father was up and flicked on the light switch in one motion. The rat jumped from the crib. My father caught it as soon as it hit the floor and squeezed until first my blood and then the rat’s oozed out of its mouth. Then my father put it on the floor, still holding the beast by the throat, and stepped down on its fat body with such force that its insides splattered all about the room. All the while I screamed in my mother’s arms, the rat screamed in my father’s hands.
“Hey, man,” George said casually, “how’d you get to be all crippled?” I tensed up again, waiting for the insults. But none came. George was genuinely concerned.
“I don’t remember no more than that,” I told George.
“Man. That’s somethin else!”
“Yeah,” I said angrily. Telling the story had given me alternating flashes of heat and chills, and although I was sweating heavily, I also trembled in anger. “I hate rats, man. I guess more’n anything else in the world I hate rats.”
“Yeah. I hate em, too,” George said. “But I don’t hate em as much as I hate hunkies.”
“Yeah. White folks is bastards,” I said.
“White folks is worse’n bastards,” George said. “They ain’t even human. They animals, man. That’s all they are. Just plain ole mothafuckin animals.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Did you hear about the cat they lynched the other night up on Twenty-second Street?”
“No,” George said astonished. “A lynchin in Chicago?”
“Hell, yeah,” I said authoritatively. “My ole man said it’s the first one in a long time.” A rat ran across the alley and we threw rocks at him. “Said if they mess with him it’ll be the last one they ever try to lynch.”
“Them mothafuckas mess with me I’ll kill so many of em they won’t know if it was me or a tornado that got hole to em.”
“Yeah,” I said.
We kept on down the alley.
“That’s some story you tell about that rat, man. That’s some bitch of a story,” he said, adding the little profanity to sound tougher.
I nodded, feeling some satisfaction that I had impressed George. But then I began to feel guilty because I had lied. I had told the story about the rat so often that I had difficulty remembering what bad really happened. I felt terrible about lying to George because he seemed honest. I was about to tell him the truth, but then I thought that he had probably made up the story about his great grandfather and his name, anyway, and I felt better. How could I possibly tell him that I had cut the tendons in my leg when I fell on a piece of glass in a vacant lot? It seemed so silly, so foolish, to me even then that no one had thought to pick up the glass and throw it in the garbage. But then, it was just another piece of glass in a vacant lot, and broken glass was like a blade of grass or a weed or a tin can or a piece of paper or a mound of dirt. It was just another piece of glass, like the ground, and I had never heard of anyone being really seriously injured by glass. I was too ashamed to tell anyone that such an ordinary thing had happened to me, so the rat story was becoming truth, a part of my life. Most of the children who had been bitten by rats did not want to talk about it, so I was acting as a teller of rat stories for all of them. What difference did it make who told the story?
We reached the end of another alley and George said, “Let’s sit on that fence over there and wait for the rest of the cats.”
“Okay by me.”
“Hey, man,” George asked, “how old are you?”
“Nine,” I said. “How bout you?”
“Nine-and-a-half,” he said happily.
“That’s cool,” I said. “We almost the same age.”
As we waited for the other boys to join us we continued our careful examination of each other, and although it was obvious that George and I were already friends, I was still anxious. I couldn’t tell how he’d act once the other boys were there. Two people who are extremely close can become enemies in front of a third person. On this day, as on many that were to follow, there would be three more boys joining us. Among them there seemed to be only one that George respected. And, as I looked up at the sound of the whistle that I too would soon be using, I saw Sam coming.
“Here comes ole black Sam,” George said teasingly.
“Your mama’s an ole black Sam,” Sam shouted as he hurried toward us.
“You know I don’t play the dozens, Sam,” George said as he kicked his heels against the fence.
Sam laughed. “Then pat your foot while I play em,” he said.
George jumped down from the fence and he and Sam began sparring. Sam was two years older than George and also much taller and heavier, but he would not throw a punch. He bobbed good-naturedly, blocking George’s blows, then faking several punches of his own, but never countered, so that George remained untouched.
I was too ashamed to tell anyone that such an ordinary thing had happened to me, so the rat story was becoming truth, a part of my life. Most of the children who had been bitten by rats did not want to talk about it, so I was acting as a teller of rat stories for all of them. What difference did it make who told the story?
At that moment, in my mind, I named him Ole Gentle Sam. He was darker than both George and me, considerably stronger, and it was his nature to soften things, to be kinder, gentler to people than we were. I don’t know why he was so kind (his life had surely been more difficult than the lives we had known), but I think it might have been strangely connected with his detachment from problems. He had the ability to stop thinking about things that bothered him and let others solve the problems. He never once originated a plan for anything. He just went along with the rest of us, taking orders from George and from me and sometimes even from little Willie and Jake. We were his brothers because he needed someone to depend on and guide him and because he needed our parents to be his parents. And, most of all, he needed our fathers to be his fathers.
Their mock fight was so funny I laughed until I fell off the fence.
“What you laughin at, man?” Sam snapped, trying to appear to be tough.
“You,” I said, laughing even harder.
“You must want some a the same thing he’s getting!”
“I don’t mind,” I said. And as George stepped back I moved in and began feinting and jabbing, very much aware all the time that George was studying my style. We sparred for a while, and when Sam realized I was able to fake him out he began to box with more aggressiveness—not much more, but enough so that he would not lose face with George.
“You pretty good with your dukes,” he said.
“But I can’t tell how good you are if you don’t fight back,” I said, dancing from side to side on my toes.
“No,” Sam said. “I might hurt you, man.”
“You ain’t gonna hurt him,” George said. “Go on and see how good he really is, Sam.”
Sam began moving in on me, feinting, jabbing, using his longer reach to keep me away from him. This was only a game, in place of the fight that George and I should have had when we met; George was using Sam. I could not allow myself to be outclassed, so I concentrated on Sam’s eyes, which had now changed so much that I hardly recognized him as the same gentle person I had seen coming happily up the alley.
“Get him, Sam. Shit. Don’t let that cat get the best of you like that.” It was little Willie.
“Tell him, Willie,” George said.
I turned my head quickly to get a look at Willie and also to let him know that I did not appreciate his signifying and Sam caught me on the ear with his open hand. I was dazed. My ears were ringing, but I could still hear Willie as I jabbed and retreated, buying time for my head to clear.
“Shit, man, if a cat hit me like that I wouldn’t be doin no backin up. Hey, Sam, you caught him a good one that time.” Out of the corner of my eye I could see Willie up on his toes, his body jerking, enjoying the contest, beating me to the ground in one of his fantasies. “Watch out, Sam,” Willie warned. “Looks like he’s ballin up his fists. Hey, man, I wouldn’t let nobody mess over me the way Sam’s messin over you. Hey, man, can’t you hear me? What’s this cat’s name, George?”
“Ernie,” George replied coldly, waiting to see how far I would go.
“Yeah, Ernie,” Willie continued, “you pretty good, but I don’t think you good as Sam. I don’t know, though, maybe you are. Hey, Sam, I think this cat’s better’n you, man. How you gonna show me he ain’t, huh?”
I did not blame Sam. It was his life to do as he was told by his friends. I wasn’t a friend yet. He hit me with two jabs, one on the shoulder, the other on the chin. This time his hand was slightly closed.
“Ooooo-weeeeee. Sam got that cat good that time. Look out, Ernie, he’s movin in for the kill now. Man, I seen him do cats in three times your size. Oh-oh, Sam, he’s better’n I thought he was. Better look out, man. This cat’s fast. He just might do you in, Sam. You fool around with him any longer, man, and this cat’s gonna beat you.”
Sam threw another punch and I stepped inside it and punched him in the chest as hard as I could. Sam moved back and looked at me with an expression that must have been about as close as he could come to being angry. Then his face relaxed and he smiled.
At that moment, in my mind, I named him Ole Gentle Sam. He was darker than both George and me, considerably stronger, and it was his nature to soften things, to be kinder, gentler to people than we were. I don’t know why he was so kind (his life had surely been more difficult than the lives we had known), but I think it might have been strangely connected with his detachment from problems.
At that point I did a dangerous thing. I lowered my guard. “I’m sorry, man. I didn’t mean to hit you that hard,” I said, being as convincing as I could. “It’s just natural, I guess. You know.”
“The hell he didn’t mean it, Sam,” Willie shouted. Working on us was his specialty, trying to embarrass us into really fighting.
Sam ignored Willie. “That’s all right, man,” he said. “I think we better quit, though, cause you too good for me.” He stuck out his hand and I shook it quickly, warily keeping my left hand ready. I would never have done this with George because I sensed he could not be trusted, but the warmth of Sam’s smile convinced me of his gentleness. He did not want to hurt me.
“You all right, Ernie,” George said.
“Yeah, man. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah,” Willie said joining the right side. “You all right with your dukes, Ernie. You one of us now, man. Listen, you gotta show me how you block so many punches, man. I’m already like lightnin, man, like a little Sugar Ray.” He began dancing and shadowboxing. “But you got some sperience, man. You got some real sperience.”
George hit Willie hard on the top of his head with his knuckles and said, “Shut up, Willie, goddamn it.”
“Hey, man, you ain’t got no need to be hittin me on the head that hard. I ain’t done nothin to you. Shit. Just cause you so damn much bigger’n me. You can be had too, you know.”
“If you don’t want more’n that you better shut up! Stop flappin your mouth all the time.”
“Judgin from the way my ear’s ringin, Sam, I’d hate to really get into it with you.”
“Ah, man, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you, honest.”
“That’s okay. I’ll know what punch to look out for next time—all of em.”
Willie mumbled a few obscenities under his breath.
“What’d you say?” George demanded.
“Nothin,” Willie snapped.
“The hell you didn’t say somethin,” George said angrily, grabbing for Willie, who jumped out of his reach.
“Oh, man, I just said where the hell’s ole fat Jake. That’s all. Shit, that’s all I said. I ain’t said nothin but that, that’s all. I said, ‘Where’s ole fat Jake?’ and nothin else.”
“You sure that’s all you said, you little shit?”
“Yeah, man. I oughta know what I said, shouldn’t I?” He was off again with the same rain of words coming so fast that they almost ran together into one long word that did not end until he stopped to catch his breath. “If I said it, man, you can bet I know what I said. I got a memory, baby. I got a memory. I got a memory so good I know what I said three days after I said it. Now if you don’t believe me, jes ask me. Go ahead. Go ahead and ask me what I said three days ago when we was up there on the corner of Cottage Grove and Sixty-fifth Street throwin rocks at them hunkies. I know zactly what I said down to the last word and the first word, too. Go ahead, ask me. And on toppa that I can tell you what I said three days before that, too.”
We began laughing at Willie.
“You too much, Willie,” Sam said, putting his arm around Willie’s shoulder. “You just too much.”
“I’m hip,” Willie said, now glowing under the protection of Sam’s arm. “I’m too much for anybody. I’m too much for the world. Like I know what I’m talkin bout, man. You know. Like I know. I know. I know too much, and like I got a memory too, man. I got a memory. You dig?”
After we had all had a big laugh and Willie had talked his selfrespect back, we looked up and saw Jake hurrying toward us.
Willie was at least a head shorter than George and I, and Jake, although not quite as tall as us, was considerably heavier. As he came closer I noticed that his hair was almost blond and his eyes were hazel. In some ways I thought Jake was sadder than Sam. Even though Sam had no will of his own, he chose to live the way he did. Jake was a cross between the races in the most racially divided country in the world, belonging to neither the black world nor the white one. We secretly admired his color and the straightness of his hair. (How else could it be at that time? We were all so terribly filled with self-hatred, so ignorant of the accomplishments of our own people.) We also hated him, for the same reason. I’m sure he could feel the tension when we greeted him, because I could feel it. No wonder he ate so often. No wonder he was so fat. At times it was difficult for us to be around him, mainly, I suppose, because we all knew that his life as a man of color did not have to be the same as ours.
We did not talk about it, but I am sure we all felt that Jake would undoubtedly slip into the white world as so many hundreds of thousands of blacks have done and become one of the enemy, one of the millions of those who know they are black and spend all of their lives, once they have left the black community, being guilty and frightened; guilty that they have left their people and frightened that they will be discovered and forced to return to the less comfortable existence of the blacks. And as long as I knew Jake I always got a bit uncomfortable when he said “nigger,” because I could not help feeling that he was really white and was only spending these few years of his early childhood pretending to be black.
As he approached us on this day of our first meeting, he was stuffing the last of a peanut-butter sandwich into his mouth and starting in quickly on the next one.
“That’s right, you ole fat yellow nigger,” Willie called out. “Stuff it all in your mouth so you don’t have to share none of it with nobody else. You bout the selfishest porky pig I ever saw. Ole funny-eyed nigger don’t wanna give nobody nothin. You so damn greedy you gonna choke yourself to death one a these days. C’mon, fat boy, hurry up. We can’t wait all day on you.”
As Willie spoke, almost as if he were our true leader, we turned our backs to Jake and started down the alley. Jake ran to catch up with us, and when he did he was panting heavily. Although he was out of breath, he managed, between coughing and wheezing, to get back at Willie.
Jake was a cross between the races in the most racially divided country in the world, belonging to neither the black world nor the white one. We secretly admired his color and the straightness of his hair. (How else could it be at that time? We were all so terribly filled with self-hatred, so ignorant of the accomplishments of our own people.)
“Your mama’s an ole fat yellow nigger,” he said.
“Yeah,” said Willie, happy that someone had started playing the dozens with him because he was the master of them. In his joy he bounced even higher on his toes as he half walked and half danced to the cadence of his words. His life would not have been nearly as much fun if he had not had Jake around to tear apart every day. Sometimes he would cut so deeply with his signifying that Jake could not hold his temper, and, crying hysterically all the time, Jake would pick a fight with Willie. The advantage Jake had over Willie in weight was nullified by Willie’s speed, and they usually fought to a draw. “All I got to say bout your folks, man, is that the reason they look so much alike is cause the same ole greasy hunkie fathered em both.”
“At least my father ain’t no dirty wino,” Jake replied smartly, feeling he had won a point.
Willie was back before Jake had finished the sentence. “That’s cause he’s already a sissy. Ole yellow nigger sissy. Ever see your ole man walk?” Willie began switching like a woman. “That’s how your ole man walks.”
We laughed and even Jake laughed. This day it would remain all fun.
“Just like all them ole white sissies.”
It was such a fun day—bouncing rocks off tin cans and light poles, missing rats, laughing with and at Willie—that we did not realize it was afternoon until Sam told us he had to leave.
“See y’all cats later. I gotta go to work. Mr. Stein’s a good cat, but he don’t want me to be late all the time.”
Willie got an idea. “Hey, man, why don’t you tell the old Jew that one of his chickens got away and you couldn’t catch him? Me and the rest of the cats’ll be out back and we’ll steal that mothafucka and take it out in the lot and cook it. Man, that’ll be some good fried chicken.”
“No, man,” Sam said. “Mr. Stein’s a good cat.”
“Ain’t no white man good,” George said. “And especially no Jews.”
“Yeah,” Jake said. “That damn Jew cheats us outta everything.”
“Why don’t he go and work with the white folks if he’s so honest, huh? You tell me that,” Willie said, anticipating Sam’s defense of the Jewish merchant.
“Cause he likes little ugly niggers like you,” Sam said, slapping Willie on the back of his head softly. “I’ll see y’all later.”
No one really meant the things they said about Sam Stein. He was good to us. He even let us steal from him, pretending not to notice our rather awkward attempts at thievery, until he felt we were getting out of hand with it. Then he would put out something that he knew we really liked, catch us as we were about to lift it, and give us a long lecture in his thick Jewish accent on the virtue of work and how really unfair it was to steal. He told us some things we really did not understand at that time. He told us that it was not the loss of merchandise that hurt him, but the respect he lost for us when we stole from him. He also said that he felt if one man stole from another man the thief obviously did not consider the other man to be a friend. He was a very emotional man, and sometimes, when he would talk to us about America, he would slip us back into history with him, telling us how everything in the United States had been stolen from the Indians, and how he himself felt guilty for the theft. When I was older I worked for Sam Stein, too, and sometimes we would talk until long after closing. Once I told him that he should also feel guilty for my people, because we too had been robbed by the whites. He agreed, shaking his head, his eyes filling with tears.
“Listen, he would say. “I van to tell ya. I know it’s true, already. I’ve known it all my life. Vhat do ya tink I am, an Irishman, a German, a Pole? I’m a Jew. All my life I been a Jew. Vhen the Catolic boys used to beat me up and call me a dirty Jew, a kike, a stinkin Jew, a big-nosed Jew, I vould say to myself, Sam, you’re a Jew. Sam, beat em. Beat em, Sam Stein. But not their vay. And I beat em. So now I got grocery stores all over the city and I vork here because I like the people here better than I like the people anyvhere else in the city. Besides that I like the people here, they like me. My friends. I feel closer to people here.” By now he would be blowing his nose, trying to keep from sobbing. “I belong here. And if I vas black … if I vas only black …”
No one really meant the things they said about Sam Stein. He was good to us. He even let us steal from him, pretending not to notice our rather awkward attempts at thievery, until he felt we were getting out of hand with it.
So Ole Gentle Sam went to work because he did not want to be late because Sam Stein, the Jew, did not want him to be late. He went to work on time because Sam Stein, the Jew, gave him food for his brothers and sisters. And if Sam Stein, the Jew, had not given him food, his brothers and sisters would have gone hungry most of the time because Sam Kelly’s mother spent all the money she got on wine.
We turned onto my block and sat on my porch in the shade. I told jokes, speaking very softly because they were dirty jokes and I didn’t want my mother or any of the other grownups to hear me.
It was another hot day. It had been that way for over a week—a hot Chicago day with the humidity nearly as high as the temperature. The street was quiet. There were only two or three families on the block at that time that owned cars, and the owners of those cars had left the neighborhood, driving their families around the city, perhaps even to the lakefront, so they could find some relief from the heat. (We used to talk about those people who owned cars and we beat up their children whenever we got the chance because we thought of them as being rich. And, because they were rich, they were also to be despised. They had more than we had, so therefore they had to be rich. How else could they afford their luxuries? How else could they afford a car! They owned cars and our experience had demonstrated that only white people and a few—very few—“rich” Negroes owned cars.) It was so hot that the sun had softened the tarred streets and even chased little boys like us, who were usually oblivious of the heat of the sun, onto a shady porch.
Two blocks away on Sixty-third Street an elevated train passed on its way toward the lake, where it was always somewhat cooler. The train was only faintly heard, however, for even sound had difficulty traveling against the waves of heat that rose up from the ground and seemed to mingle with the sun’s rays. A dog roamed aimlessly down the street looking for water, its head bent, panting heavily. It was so hot that we did not even think about throwing rocks at the dog. A cat across the street eyed the dog with drugged indifference, then shut its eyes and returned to sleep.
Right in the middle of one of my jokes I heard the screen door of the bar on the corner bang against the side of the building. We all looked that way and waited excitedly.
A man broke out of the bar running fast, followed by a woman. As her right hand came up, we could see the blade of an enormous knife. He crossed the street, his arms and legs pumping powerfully to give him speed, turned up the block, and began to pull away from her.
“Come back here, you black bastard!” she shouted in a voice as deep as a man’s. “You suppose to be so much man.”
He glanced over his shoulder and was relieved to see that he was outrunning her. He snapped his head back too late to see the tree stump in the grassless parkway that caught his foot and threw him forward on his face into the dirt. He struggled frantically to get to his feet, but she was there in front of him before he could start running again, striking at him catlike, forcing him to move in the direction she chose. He lost his balance again, falling on his back, and rolled over quickly toward the buildings to avoid the rapid thrusts of the knife that she wielded so expertly.
“No!” he shouted, jumping to his feet. “I didn’t mean you no harm, Bessie. I tole you I didn’t mean you no harm!”
The people from the bar had followed them out and were now crowding around them as the woman moved in a semicircle in front of her frightened victim. Heads appeared in windows, doors opened and suddenly it seemed as if the entire block had turned out to see the fight. On the sagging frame porch we had ideal seats as another phase of life of the beaten adults unfolded before us.
The man darted for the street and she forced him back against the wall with one swing of the knife hand. The overanxious crowd edged closer to the pair, irritating the woman, and she swung wildly in their direction. They scrambled back a safe distance and waited with delighted eyes. Now she turned to the man with a cold intensity that made it obvious to everyone that she was about to humiliate him before the people of our world in a way that would destroy him as a man in our eyes for the rest of his life. She would see to it that he would never make fun of her again after this day, slicing him until he begged her to stop.
“Bessie, you ain’t gonna cut me and get away with it. I’m tellin you, Bessie, I ain’t lettin you do it. I ain’t like them others!”
She laughed. “Why,” she said coyly, “I ain’t cut nobody this month. You don’t want folks sayin I can’t cut no mo, do you?”
The man broke for the street. It was a foolish but desperate move. She blocked his path and struck at him several times, opening a long red line down his forearm. The crowd sighed. Blood oozed down his arm and trickled off the tips of his fingers, splattering when it hit the dust. Bessie threw her head back and laughed a deep guttural laugh as he worked clumsily with a dingy handkerchief trying to stop the bleeding. Again she began moving from side to side. She was an enormous woman, hair close-cropped, dressed in a man’s shirt and coveralls.
“I’m gonna get you good, mothafucka,” she shouted in her husky voice. “I’m gonna cut yo tongue out, you greasy black nigger, and feed it to yo bitch.”
“Bessie,” he pleaded. “I already done tole you I don’t want to fight with no woman.” He was a full head shorter, but muscular.
“And I done tole you I ain’t no little pissy-assed woman.”
“You still a woman to me, Bessie,” he said almost calmly. “And I ain’t gonna fight with no woman and that’s all there is to it.”
“You don’t have to fight. But you gonna give me some of your blood-now!” She lunged forward with a grunt. He side-stepped, grabbed her massive arm, and swung her into the side of the building with all his might, her body landing against the bricks of the foundation with a loud crack. Blood spurted from her face. He pulled her back and threw her into the wall again, almost in one circular motion, so that she was not able to stab at him.
Now she turned to the man with a cold intensity that made it obvious to everyone that she was about to humiliate him before the people of our world in a way that would destroy him as a man in our eyes for the rest of his life. She would see to it that he would never make fun of her again after this day, slicing him until he begged her to stop.
She screamed, sounding more like a woman now, dropped the knife and began striking at the air with open hands. He stepped away from her, took careful aim and smashed his fist into her face four times before she finally collapsed. She lay on the ground twisting in agony, her eyes swollen shut. “I’ll kill you. I’ll kill you, you black bastard,” she screamed.
“How that ole Iez gonna kill anybody?” a woman said. The crowd laughed.
“Don’t let her get up, man,” a voice called out.
“Yeah, I seen her get up when she looked half dead and damn near kill a cat.”
“If you gonna let her get up, you jes better start runnin now.” And another: “Kill the big bitch!”
She struggled to her knees, crying and shouting insults at the people she could no longer see. She was about to get to her feet when he kicked her, his foot sinking way into her abdomen. She rolled over on her back, holding her stomach, but managed to get to her knees again. He grabbed her short hair, snapped her head back and rammed his fist down again and again until she crumbled to the ground unconscious.
“Police!” a voice from an open window three floors up called, and the crowd disappeared into doorways, through gangways, windows, over fences, and some back to the bar, leaving the bloody body in the dirt, warmed by the sun and already attracting flies and other insects.
“Dig, let’s get outta here,” I said. We jumped from the porch the way we had seen stunt men in the movies go over a banister, one hand over the railing, then falling over in a wide arc and landing on our feet. We ran through the gangway between the two tall buildings, through the backyard, then over a fence, and finally stopped in the safety of the alley, where the police seldom came.
“Dig, man,” Willie said. “Y’all see the way that cat did Big Bessie in—wham!” He beat his fist into an open palm. “Damn near broke the bitch’s neck off. Wham! Wham! Wham!”
“How’d he do it, Willie?” I asked.
Willie jumped into the air and brought the full weight of his body down with the blows that crushed his imaginary opponent. “Wham! Wham!”
We mimicked him and laughed.
“That’s what the cat had to do. That’s the only thing that was left for him so that’s what he shoulda done. That is,” he said, pausing for a more dramatic moment, “if he had to fight. He a dumb ass. He had to fight and that’s always dumb. Not me. You think I’d let that bitch cut me? Sheet, man, nobody never cuts little Willie. Man, I’d talk-talk-talk-talk-talk her right outta it.” He began swinging his right arm and snapping his fingers as he did when his nervous, compulsive talking began to sound good to him. “Dig,” he said, “ain’t I always talked my way outta any trouble that was too much for me to handle? Ain’t I?”
George and Jake agreed and I found myself nodding too, as if I had known him for years, for even though I had not known him longer than a few hours, he was a type I had known all my life, and I was certain that he had done exactly what he said many times.
“All right, then. That’s what I’d do with that she-man. I woulda talked so fast and so strong till she was black and blue and white and black again.” He held his hand close to his face, palm up, and said, “That’s where I woulda had her—right there. Right there! I woulda made her beg me to keep talkin. I woulda tole that chick she was the queen of all women. And, if that didn’t work, I woulda tole her she was a better man than any man could ever be. Right there I woulda had her. Man, when I got through with that chick she’d be paying me just to hang around and talk shit to her. Ain’t nobody can talk like Little Willie. Nobody. I oughta be a lawyer, that’s what I oughta be. Oughta be a lawyer right now.” He jumped on top of a pile of garbage and looked down scornfully at us. “Y’all cats better not cross Little Willie cause when I’m judge I’ll throw all y’all niggers in jail. Look up to me!” he shouted. “I’m a lawyer. I’m a judge. I’m a king. King of talk. I can talk anybody outta anything I want.”
“Okay, king,” George said. “Let’s see you talk the vegetable man outta some food cause I’m hungry.”
I slapped George on the back and laughed at Willie. It seemed as if he had talked himself into another impossible situation.
Willie lowered his bead and stepped down from his throne. “Now you know well as I do,” he said quickly, “that you can’t talk to a horse. Well, that damn vegetable man’s dumber than his horse. If you want somethin from somebody that dumb, you gotta steal it. So let’s go find the dumb bastard and I’ll talk to him while you cats steal it.”
“Well, let’s go then,” I said, and we all took off down the alley, following the call of the vegetable man so Willie could distract him while we stole a few tomatoes and carrots.
• • •
Willie’s mother and father had lived common law for thirty years and were considerably older than the rest of our parents. In many ways their relationship was special, rather sacred, not only because they remained partners by mutual consent when there was no law forcing them to, but because of one thing they did to make Willie’s life more pleasant. Their only mistake, of course, was having Willie, but they loved him and did the best they could for him. When he was born, the stout and, even then, very old Miss Webster persuaded her companion, Mr. McDonald, to change his name to Webster. “I ain’t gonna have people callin my son no bastard,” she said firmly. And her greatest argument against the name McDonald was that it sounded too foreign, not at all the proper name for a respectable black man. He agreed to change his name, and by the time I met Willie people had just about forgotten that Mrs. Webster was really Miss Webster and Mr. Webster was really Mr. McDonald. Of course, he never bothered to go through the foolish routine of going to court, standing before a judge and having his name legally changed; he simply started calling himself to think about going to court for that purpose. But going to court meant paying money for the cost of occupying the courtroom for the few minutes necessary for the judge to ask him if he really wanted the name he had chosen and why he felt it necessary to change it and if he had ever filed bankruptcy under his present name. Going to court would also have meant the cost of a lawyer, who would have had to write up the petition and then accompany Mr. Webster to the poorly-lighted chambers that most blacks feared. Mr. Webster would have liked very much to go to court for something other than his familiar charge of “Drunk and disorderly, Your Honor.” He would indeed have liked to be in a position to afford the luxury of doing things the way white people told him they should be done—the way they did them. But, like most of our parents then, the Websters had no money for such foolishness, so he went about it in the same way blacks had done for years, and it worked.
He was a gentle man, and when I met him I realized that Willie was not the first person born into his family who was a masterful talker. Mr. Webster, however, liked to tell stories about the time he met Franklin D. Roosevelt, about his advice to Woodrow Wilson concerning his struggle to make the League of Nations a meaningful body, about the time Winston Churchill called him to a secret meeting downtown and told him that if he would advise him when he became Prime Minister he would see to it that Mr. Webster was made a citizen of Great Britain and given a lifetime job in the British civil service. (And then, almost crying, he would tell how disappointed he was, even now, because Churchill had broken his promise; reminding us that white people were not to be trusted.) The most exciting story of all was the one he told about meeting Joe Louis and helping teach him how to throw a left hook, the left hook that made Joe Louis champion of the world! He also claimed to have played football with Duke Slater before the “Iron Duke” went away to the university. When he was telling his stories, his eyes burned with the excitement of a child, and his body jerked convulsively, as if the excitement of telling the stories and the truth of them was so strong that it throbbed in his body until he’d shared his secrets. He was fun enough when he was sober, but he was magnificent when he was drunk.
He was a gentle man, and when I met him I realized that Willie was not the first person born into his family who was a masterful talker.
Mr. Webster was a man of considerable cunning and was considered to be the greatest moocher in the city. By now his life had become one enormous bottle, with him on the open end of it, draining the joy juice into his mind. After the first week of the month, Mrs. Webster would not give him money for wine, but he drank on, mooching drinks in bars, doorways, cars, alleys, and many times right out on the open street; that is, when there were no police around. (“Goddamn cops don’t like to see black folks havin fun,” he used to say.) He mooched drinks three weeks out of the month, usually with very little difficulty. He was a truly great liar.
No one felt Mr. Webster lived the life of a bum, however. Every month he received a check from the welfare department. He had been on welfare for many, many years, and even this he arranged with classic artistry. He got pneumonia and was forced to stay home from work for a month. He had never in his life known a week without work, and having an entire month away was such a delightful experience that he pledged himself an easier, more gentlemanly existence. If the very rich did not have to work, he asked himself, why should he? The answer, of course, was that he should not. Realizing the value of his vote, he journeyed to the house of his precinct captain to request temporary aid until he was able to return to some form of work. He then managed to work himself into the position of unofficial assistant to the precinct captain, voting every election day (voting often every election day), and never again had to worry about staining his fingers with shoe polish. The precinct captain felt that Mr. Webster was his greatest find. On election day Mr. Webster produced every wino in the neighborhood, even some who had been thought dead for years.
Mr. Webster thought of himself as one of the chosen. He was one of the many guaranteed Democratic votes at every election, and therefore, one of those that the Democratic party had to take care of and protect. Rather than give blacks jobs, someone at city hall had come up with the grand idea of putting them on the welfare rolls. It was the easiest way of pacifying the unions, the businessmen, and the blacks. There could be no major confrontation between the races as there had been in 1919 if blacks and whites were kept apart, and since the pattern of ethnic segregation had already been firmly established after that vicious riot of 1919, the only problem was keeping the races apart. The welfare department was encouraged to ease up on their restrictions against blacks. Many of the whites working in the department were angry because they felt blacks were being shown preferential treatment. They did not know that this was really a blessing for them—a more sophisticated form of slavery. They could not possibly know this because they lacked awareness, they lacked sensitivity where blacks were concerned. They had never even thought that blacks were being denied jobs. They had never even registered in their minds the absence of blacks in their own department.
I was once told by Mr. Webster that at one time in his life he found himself on his way to becoming wealthy. He said he noticed that when he reported to the welfare office the whites there never gave him more than a cursory glance before banding over his check. He knew he was in good standing with the precinct captain (in Chicago that is tantamount to being in good standing with the mayor), and his checks would keep coming no matter what he did, so he decided to take a chance, a gamble that might furnish him enough money to “really work with”—as he stated it, maybe even enough to open up a small business of his own.
He took considerable pride in looking presentable when he went to pick up his checks. “Didn’t want them folks seein me lookin too bad. Gotta keep up the pearance, you know.” But one day he was too hung-over to go through the routine of washing and shaving. It had been a four-day drunk and he did not have the energy to change his clothes. He put on a big hat, hoping to hide his shame under the brim as he entered the office in his dirty shirt and coveralls and four-day growth of beard, smelling of the way of life be lived. When he realized that he wasn’t recognized as Mr. Webster, he immediately filed for relief under the name of McDonald. The papers were processed and he was told to report on the first of the following month to receive his check.
It worked for a long time. He would arrive early at the office on the first day of every month, dressed in coveralls and dirty shirt, the big-brimmed hat pulled way down on his face, and, of course, a heavy growth of beard. After he humbly accepted the check, he would walk over to the lakefront and climb down among the rocks to the waterline, where he was guaranteed privacy. He’d open the shopping bag he had lately begun to carry, take out a bar of soap and a razor, and shave with the cool waters of Lake Michigan. Then, always alert, he would look around for people. He would take out a pair of pants and a shirt and change clothes, stuffing the dirty uniform of his degradation, including the big-brimmed hat, into the shopping bag. Then he would sprinkle a little cologne in bis hands, pat it onto bis face, and emerge from the rocks putting on the tie that was the mark of the gentleman he really was.
There could be no major confrontation between the races as there had been in 1919 if blacks and whites were kept apart, and since the pattern of ethnic segregation had already been firmly established after that vicious riot of 1919, the only problem was keeping the races apart. The welfare department was encouraged to ease up on their restrictions against blacks.
Returning to the office, he was met by the quick, disdainful glance of those gray eyes hidden in the face of little color and even less awareness and, with no words exchanged between them other than his name, and with the customary detachment with which blacks were handled, bis check was laid before him on the counter.
“But you know, Ernie boy, even though it was a perfect plan, I never thought bout one thing, never thought bout it; at least till it happened.” His body rocked with laughter and I waited anxiously to hear more. “Boy, you shoulda seen me tryin to shave and change clothes out there on that damn lakefront when it dropped below zero. They jes got us comin and goin. Ain’t no way at all for the black man to get hisself nuf money to really work with cause even the weather’s on the side of the white man. If it had jes stayed warm that one winter . . . jes that one winter was all I needed to get me nuf to get goin real good. But I damn near froze my ass off. Almos caught pneumonia all over again. Slippin and slidin down them damn rocks, breakin my ass tryin to get to the water and then havin to find a place where I could break through that damn ice to get to some water. And when I finally did get some water! Goddamn, boy, my han was froze fore I could even get the water to my face. But that’s all right, though. Gonna get even so big I’m gonna buy up halfa this damn town.”
Mrs. Webster, even at her age, had moist, smooth chocolate skin, but she was so overweight that it was tiring just to watch her walk to Sam Stein’s grocery store. She was a quiet woman, and rarely had much to say to us except “Y’all have some more cornbread and greens.” But her quietness and gentle manner were not to be taken as a sign of weakness. For in this round body with round arms and round legs there was so much power she could control a houseful of her wino husband’s friends without once raising her voice, even though she was only four feet eight inches tall. I remember seeing her turn ten of them out one evening, each one as drunk as the other. No one turns ten winos away from anywhere, not even the police, but she did.
“Thank you, gentlemen, but it’s time for y’all to take all that outside now,” she said softly, but with such authority that they rose, saying, “Yes, ma’am, Mrs. Webster,” and left.
One man returned, hoping to mooch some food.
“Now you jes go on with the resta your friends. The boys gonna eat some greens now, and you know I don’t want none a y’all round the children when y’all’s all drunked up. You can come back some other time and eat after you sobered up some. Good-bye, Mr. Jones.”
George’s father rarely talked to his wife or his own children, and, with one exception, never talked to the rest of us. The exception was Sam. All of the fathers talked to Sam, for Sam, when he was just a little tot, had accepted all of them as his father. When the other boys’ fathers came home from work ( or wherever they had been during working hours) and the boys ran to meet them calling, “Daddy. Daddy,” Sam went right along with them calling “Daddy” as loudly and with as much enthusiasm as the real children of these men. Sam, you see, did not know who his father was, and the men of the block, without ever really thinking about it, took it upon themselves to be a little kinder to him, sometimes kinder than they were to their own children. And the only time I ever saw Mr. Brown smile was when he saw Sam.
By now Sam was so grownup that they shook hands like men and Mr. Brown slapped him on the back as if he were one of his associates. The years of caring about Sam had made them as close as father and son.
Mr. Brown looked like a black American Indian. George would often try to tell me some of the stories his father had told him about the closeness between certain Indian tribes in the South and the blacks, but he could never remember the names of the tribes or just how closely involved they really had been with blacks. In later years I was to find out just how much mixing there had been between Indians and blacks and why some of my own relatives looked so much like Indians.
Sam, you see, did not know who his father was, and the men of the block, without ever really thinking about it, took it upon themselves to be a little kinder to him, sometimes kinder than they were to their own children.
But there was Mr. Brown, a black man who looked like an Indian, who had left Mississippi because he did not possess that special elasticity that would enable him to live like other blacks in the South. He could not tolerate the subhuman existence and he had escaped to the North, only to find that in Chicago too he was just as severely hated and almost equally oppressed. After days of searching for that “good” job he had heard so much about when he was down home in the South, he found there was no employment for him but coal hiking, working with a white partner who did less work but earned more money. George told me that when his father did speak to his children he did not look directly at them, but seemed more to be talking to himself and spoke continually of the “evil white mind.”
Mr. Brown never missed a day of work, even though it was obvious to everyone that he hated everything about his job. There was something about this big angry black man that excited the women of our neighborhood, and often I could see them looking from behind their curtains ( even my own mother) as he started out for work early in the morning, his face molded by his bitterness, angrily slamming his size-thirteen shoes down on the sidewalk, his dirty shovel with its shiny bottom sparkling in the early-morning sun.
The Browns lived in a one-room apartment that was not unlike many others in the neighborhood. There was one window. In the summer everyone wanted to sleep under the window, but in the winter it was the least desirable spot. There was a table made of two long planks that rested awkwardly on orange crates; a twohot-plate stove they used in the summer; and a coal furnace for cooking and heating in the colder months. There were other wooden crates used for storing some of their necessities and for use as chairs, a small icebox, one bed, a collapsible cot where George slept, and a radio that could never be depended on to remain static free for more than five or ten minutes.
Mrs. Brown was short and thin and gently submissive. When she felt the need, she took out her aged Bible and forced George and whoever was with him to sit as she read aloud from the magic book. Although she read poorly, a soft tranquil quality shone in her almond-colored face and we were at ease. Even though we were not always entertained by the stories from the book, we were relaxed because she was so different from the tense person she became when Mr. Brown was around. The magic of the Bible had not worked with George’s older brother and sister, but she continued to have faith, hoping it would work for George and for us.
His brother—whom I saw only once, before he got busted on a narcotics charge and was returned to federal prison, again—was serving two-to-ten on possession of narcotics when I met George. His sister, an absolutely stunning female, a perfect blend of the best of both of her parents, had left home and become a hooker at sixteen and was now two years into her profession and what we considered very much a financial success. Sometimes we would see her on the street at night with a trick and she would always ignore us. But if she was alone she would hug George as if she had to suck the life from his body into hers to go on living. She never failed to ask about their father and mother, and then she would either give him money or take us to the store and buy us a huge bag of penny candy. She was beautiful. I think I was in love with her the moment I heard her voice. It was filled with so much sorrow that even at my young age I wanted to hold her, to comfort her and make her well just by having my arms around her. But even with the sadness she was beautiful. A woman! A lovely woman with small breasts, no waist at all, and round hips, perfectly round hips, a full healthy nose, huge mouth with sweeping lips, tiny feet, and straight, beautifully-shaped legs. The first time I heard her voice it seemed to me that she was crying out to us, pleading with us to grow up immediately and change not only our world but hers too, to change everything around us so that black would mean dignity, so that black would not mean the bottom of a pit, so that black would mean the sun!
Mrs. Brown was short and thin and gently submissive. When she felt the need, she took out her aged Bible and forced George and whoever was with him to sit as she read aloud from the magic book. Although she read poorly, a soft tranquil quality shone in her almond-colored face and we were at ease.
The longing for black pride that I sensed in George’s sister must have been strong in my grandparents, too, because my mother was not looking for it—she had it. The pride she felt in herself shone in everything she did. She was tall and thin, and rather than walk stoop-shouldered to make herself as short as my father, she stood so straight that she seemed to be straining to make herself even taller.
“Man, your mama walks so straight she looks like she’s gonna fall over backwards,” Willie used to say.
“When you got as much pride as my mama, man, you can’t fall noway, notime, nohow.”
When I began learning to read, she would sit beside me and repeat the words out loud. It wasn’t until I was much older that I realized she was teaching herself how to read. As I grew older I would sit across the kitchen table from her and read most of the newspaper to her every day, every day except Sunday. On Sunday my father was home and she evidently did not want to remind him of her illiteracy. I’m really glad my mother was illiterate because it provided me with a reason to read more often, and later to write. By the time I began teaching her to write, I was already well into the writing of short stories.
When she was a child in Mississippi she lived on a plantation with her mother and aunts and uncles. She never knew her father. When she asked about him she was told he was dead, and told this in a way that indicated no one wanted to talk about him. She never heard mention of his name or anything that he had done. It was as if it were a family secret, something shameful that the family was afraid of bringing out into the open. In her need to know, she fantasized that her father was everything from a brave black hero who had fought the whites and been murdered by them to the dirtiest poor white trash, who had taken her black mother in a way that was not at all unusual in the South.
I’m really glad my mother was illiterate because it provided me with a reason to read more often, and later to write. By the time I began teaching her to write, I was already well into the writing of short stories.
On this plantation the blacks were worked so hard that there was little time left for anything but resting up for the next day’s work. There was a school being built for blacks five miles away, but the owner had announced that any black child from his plantation who went to the school would not be allowed back on the property. Several of the blacks defied him, sending their children off to school the first year it opened. They forced him into a confrontation, thinking they could win. They were right about the immediate effect of their act of bravery, but wrong about their thoughts of victory. The plantation owner almost respected them for their efforts. They had created a serious problem, for if he was truly serious about the rigid control he sought to maintain, if he really meant that he would not allow black children to be educated, then he would have to fire many of his best workers.
The parents of the children who had been sent to school were forced to give up their jobs and houses (shacks though they were, they were at least some protection against the elements), and start out on foot down the dirt road, trying to find new jobs and homes. Those who did not through some miraculous series of circumstances find a way to work their way north soon found themselves in even worse condition than they had been on the plantation. The owner, keeping books on what they were alleged to owe him for clothing and provisions he had given them in advance against their wages, demanded that they pay the money due him within a week.
And, when they were not able to do this, the men found themselves arrested and sent off to a chain gang. Then they would be returned to the plantation daily, where they worked even harder than they had before. This time, however, it was totally without pay and their families were left to survive by whatever means they could.
Since my mother was being partially supported by her aunts and uncles, she could not jeopardize their positions. One uncle was an assistant foreman, and he would not risk losing that position for something as meaningless, to him, as a child learning how to read books, books that had nothing to do with planting cotton or raising stock. All things that a black person had to know, he felt, could be learned on the job. School was something the whites did; school was a sinful waste of time.
Ultimately my mother’s mother died and she and my father, who lived and worked on a neighboring plantation, ran away to the North, where they were married by a black minister in the first church they found. They were only sixteen at the time, and the preacher was like a father to them until they moved away and set up housekeeping on their own, rooming in someone else’s apartment. He would not let them live together until they were married, but they refused to separate because they were afraid of this new world of Chicago and knew only each other. The preacher, realizing that they would be living in sin if he did not marry them, decided that the law of God was stronger than the law of man and performed the marriage ceremony without a marriage certificate. The following day he took them to city hall and helped them get their marriage license.
For months they lived in the basement of his store-front church, cleaning the church and helping out with whatever other chores had to be done around the place. He was more of a parent than either of them had ever had, and in time he was able to find my father a job as a janitor. This job my father kept until the defense plants opened up to blacks during the big war.
For a long while my mother did domestic work for white people, but about the time I was born she began teaching herself how to sew expertly. I cannot imagine what my mother was like as a domestic; I only remember her as an exceptionally skilled seamstress, who did work for some of the black ladies in other neighborhoods with enough money to pay for the little sewing jobs they either could not or did not care to do. There were only a few such sewing jobs, however, only enough to provide her with a little extra money for that occasional treat I was always delighted and surprised to get.
My father was a little shorter than my mother and not much heavier, but he too was a person of considerable dignity. He was the first janitor at the store where he worked who refused to allow the white employees to call him “nigger.” They did not call him “Mr. Johnson,” but they also did not call him “nigger,” and they did not call him “boy,” and they did not call him “Sam”‘ or “Sambo.”
His first day at work one of the clerks said, “Hey, nigger, get over here and mop up this mess.”
My father walked up to the man calmly and threw one punch that laid the clerk on the floor, unconscious for several minutes. As the other employees gathered around in disbelief, my father announced to them that he would respond to “Ernest” or “Ernie,” but not to “nigger” or “boy” or “Sam.” He had not come north to be called a nigger every time a white person wanted him to do something. He had seen the owner smiling as he stepped into his office, closing the door quietly so that no one would know he had witnessed the incident. A delegation of whites went to the proprietor, but he pretended to be in an angry mood that day, saying that he wanted to talk to no one.
The embarrassment was too much for the clerk and he soon resigned; my father stayed on for ten years, and he was never called “nigger” again.
He had come north prepared to fight, believing he was coming to a place where a black man could speak his mind and even be listened to by whites; knowing, from the many stories he had heard about the North, that his freedom there would be so great that he would be able to exert his manhood to its fullest. He had come with all the delusions of every other black man who had made the journey before him. As a janitor in a white store downtown, he was earning more money than he had ever earned before, but as each month ended and his bills came due, he found that there was very little money left.
As proud as he was, though, even without much money, he was determined to enjoy all of the facilities of the city within his financial means. It was not long before the ways of the northern whites began to cut into his dignity, breaking him down until he found himself succumbing to their will, fitting into the mold they had decided he would assume as a black man in the great northern U.S.A.
It wasn’t just being turned away from restaurants and many other places downtown that were reserved for whites only, it wasn’t just the hateful stares. I think, of the hundreds of experiences he had day after day just getting to work, there was one in particular that crystallized them all and cut deeply into him.
It happened just before we moved into our new neighborhood. Dad had gone out one Saturday morning looking for a less expensive apartment. After talking to people at work and looking through the classified section with a white friend there, he realized that the only way to save money was to get an apartment in an area that bordered the black community. I was too young to know the problems he faced, but things have not really changed that much and now I know what happened to him. He could not understand why whites who made more money than blacks could get apartments that were considerably bigger and yet cost less money than those the blacks rented.
It wasn’t just being turned away from restaurants and many other places downtown that were reserved for whites only, it wasn’t just the hateful stares. I think, of the hundreds of experiences he had day after day just getting to work, there was one in particular that crystallized them all and cut deeply into him.
He answered an ad for a basement apartment in an area that was only two blocks from the black community. He rang the bell and was met by a man with a heavy Polish accent.
“Na! No niggers here!”
My father turned to walk away, rage mounting, rage screaming, rage demanding that he stay and fight the foreigner who had in sulted him. Then the man called him back, saying that he might give my father a chance. It was a basement apartment and he wanted to see if my father planned to keep it clean and how good a job he could do at it. He gave him a broom, a bucket, and a mop and told him if he cleaned the apartment satisfactorily he would let him have it. Then the man left, returning after Dad had completed his work.
The man was pleased with the work, but then pointed to the walls, asking how he would clean them. By now my father was so enthusiastic that he told the man he would like to paint the entire apartment, but before painting it, he wanted to wash the walls down. The man grunted his approval and my father began working again, singing and whistling and talking to himself as he did when he was happiest. He was so pleased with the new apartment that he scolded himself for having called these people “polacks.” He had found a good one, so perhaps there were many more.
It was only a three-room basement apartment, and it wasn’t long before Dad had washed every wall in the place, and the walls in the kitchen several times because the thick layers of grease collected there would not come off with one scrubbing. As he was dusting the overhead pipes that heated the place he heard voices. He turned and saw three men talking in a foreign language. He could understand nothing they said except “nigger,” but he could sense the animosity and began to feel that he had been had.
He told the man he was finished and asked when he might move his family into the apartment.
The men laughed.
The one he knew then spoke, saying that he would die before he let a nigger move into his place. Then he shocked my father even more, saying that he was the janitor for the building and his only function was to show the apartment to prospective occupants. He went on to say that he had been putting off cleaning this particular apartment because it was so filthy, but that my father had relieved him of that burden.
The men were all considerably heavier and more muscular than my father, but he swung anyway, because even though he was not absolutely certain what the man had said, it sounded to him like: “Knew ya kud clean it cause ya niggers live so goddamn dirty.”
The punch landed, drawing blood, and my father was happy, but that was the only punch he was able to get off. They beat him until he was unconscious, and then they called the police, saying that my father had come there and attacked them with a knife and tried to rob them.
The police arrived as my father was regaining consciousness, and one well-placed blow at the base of his skull put him out again. . . .
He told his story to the judge three days later, and since there were no complaining witnesses, my father was discharged with a warning that it might be better for him to stay in his own neighborhood and not cause trouble again. The judge also said that he was being lenient with my father this time because of no past record, but that if he saw him again, he was going to give him some time.
The problem of being called “nigger,” of course, was not one that Jake’s father had. He was a draftsman working for a white architectural firm. His problem was considerably different and perhaps even somewhat harder than my father’s. He had the awful experience, almost daily, of sitting around with his fellow employees while they told jokes about blacks. He was forced to laugh at his own people with the whites, and occasionally tell jokes about them himself. Well, he did not really have to take this treatment from them. He could have stood up for blacks and accused the whites of being bigots, but he felt if he had not gone along with them, if he had caused any unnecessary trouble, they might have thought him strange and begun to inquire about the neighborhood he lived in more persistently and come up with the realization that he was not white, but was only passing—they would have found out that he was a black man! He had not been asked his race when he applied for the job, the same way he had not been asked his race when he enrolled in drafting school, a drafting school that took no blacks. Anyone who talked like a white person and looked like a white person had to be white. It was not a pleasant life for him and he hated it, but he had the best job of anyone in the neighborhood, and his family was being fed. He was making so much money that they were even considering buying a house! So, if he had to be white for eight hours a day, then he would be white. But he was ashamed that he had rejected his identity, and often thought about challenging his employer and fellow workers to accept him as he truly was by announcing his blackness. Jake said that when his father said something like this to his mother she would really get bitchy, even to the point of threatening to take the children and leave him.
It was important to Mrs. Saunders that her husband passed for white and made more money than any of their friends who did not pass. She was not at all like him. She loathed being a Negro. She despised all of us and had no more to do with anyone in the neighborhood than was absolutely necessary. She had a few friends that we could see coming to her apartment for parties or drinks or once a week for bridge. They were all light enough to pass, and they all had straight hair. Occasionally we would see a person who was exceptionally light with nappy hair come there, but only once in a while. I noticed over the years that, although this did happen, the nappy-headed ones were never frequent visitors, were never friends, and were, as a result, not allowed to be a permanent part of her like-white world, where they all pretended to be white and hated more than anything else in the world the blacks that surrounded them and the blackness within themselves. She was an ambitious woman, and she worked on Mr. Saunders in her nagging, whining, bitchy voice, trying to get him to move out of the neighborhood, to become white, warning him repeatedly about the possibility of Jake’s becoming as foul and vicious as we were.
I found it exciting to be in the house with Jake because then I could see him as he would someday become when she won and they moved away from our black world. He could use no slang in the house. He never once in her presence said “y’all” or “ain’t” or “gonna” or “coulda” or “woulda” or “man” or “Jack” or “Jim” or any number of words that we used every day in our way that was peculiarly black. I told my mother about it and she thought I should not go by there if I was not wanted, but I explained to her that I considered it an education. I was learning new words and bow to pronounce them, and I did not mind if Mrs. Saunders did not like me.
I think I really surprised Mrs. Saunders when one day I began speaking like Jake. It wasn’t that I was trying to be like her, trying to be like-white. It was just that I had found something new to do and I didn’t like the idea of Jake doing anything better than I could.
Mrs. Saunders seemed intrigued because I could duplicate her pronunciation and even some of the gentle, sophisticated mannerisms of Mr. Saunders. I think because of this she began to treat me a little more kindly, even taking time to correct my pronunciation and occasionally surprise me even more with a smile because of something I had said. Still, I know that she did not like me. How could she? I was black. I think she felt, even though I was considerably browner than her family, that since I did not talk the way the other boys did she would allow me to visit with Jake in her home. Sometimes she forgot herself and even offered me food. In many ways she was pleasant looking and would have been an attractive woman had she not been so filled with hatred. But Jake’s sister, Jeannette, was not at all like her mother.
Jeannette was only a year younger than I. She was soft-looking, pretty, always immaculate, and had nice full legs-indeed a rarity for a depression baby. At that time, of course, she was a terrible tease. Jake’s only way of handling her was by punching her on the arms and legs. He would much rather have slapped her, but he had found out that a bruise on her face meant a beating for him, so he had stopped slapping her and resorted to this safe way of keeping her away from us so that we could go on with whatever nonsense we had planned for the afternoon. When I was there I would not let Jake punch her. Obviously she felt more secure when I was there, and as a result she was less bothersome.
I had no way of knowing how much Miss Kelly had suffered, but since all identifiable Negroes in this country are in constant pain or suffering, the degree of suffering does not matter. What matters is the degree of one’s ability to withstand the daily bombardment of perverse, senseless, irrational racist actions directed at us.
Sometimes at night, when I was sitting in the bathroom sneaking a cigarette, I used to wonder whether if Jake’s mother had not been so light, if she had not had Mr. Saunders, if she had not been favored by both whites and blacks while she was growing up, she might not have turned out like Sam’s mother. But then I realized that that would have been impossible. She had not suffered enough to be like Sam’s mother, Miss Beatrice Kelly.
I had no way of knowing how much Miss Kelly had suffered, but since all identifiable Negroes in this country are in constant pain or suffering, the degree of suffering does not matter. What matters is the degree of one’s ability to withstand the daily bombardment of perverse, senseless, irrational racist actions directed at us. Sam’s mother was one of the weaker ones. Or maybe that is only the way I saw her because I was too young to really understand the weight of blackness in the U.S. Maybe she had originally been one of the more sensitive ones and because of that increased sensitivity she had been unable to withstand the pressures and had given up, had surrendered completely, withdrawing from all the ugliness of the black reality she knew to a world of drunkenness where fantasies of her own choosing made life bearable.
Sam was the first of six illegitimate children born to Miss Beatrice Kelly. Each child was fathered by a different man. And, because she was the whore for the winos of our neighborhood, it would have been impossible for her to name one man as the father of any of her children. She came to Chicago from Alabama with an aunt and uncle at the age of fourteen, and along with her she carried in her uterus a two-month-old embryo who was later to be born in Chicago and named Sam. She then went for three years without getting pregnant again. However, for some reason she gave in to the pressures of living in the city as a black person. After one stillborn, she then popped children out with an amazing degree of regularity for the next four-and-one-half years, until the doctors at the county hospital decided that a hysterectomy was the only thing that would keep her alive long enough to raise her children. Sam had never known what a real father was like. His mother had moved away from the aunt and uncle when he was only two. By the time he was six years old, he had become both father and mother to his younger brothers and sisters as they came along because his mother was always getting drunk, maintaining a drunk, or painfully coming off one. Washing clothes, cooking meals, disciplining, toilet training, and teaching the younger children had been his responsibilities ever since he could remember. When I met Sam his brothers and sisters were pretty much able to take care of themselves, and he had finally been freed somewhat to run the alleys with us and begin to have a life of his own.
I do not remember Miss Kelly as being an ugly woman, or as a person who was ever really cruel to the children. I only remember her as being a person who seemed to have been physically ill for years, who seemed always on the verge of dying. She was usually drunk and there was almost always at least one wino living with her, and when she wanted to make love (or when the wino companion wanted to), regardless of the time of day or night or where they were or who else was there, they did. But when Sam got big enough to force her to accept his ideas and wishes, he finally put an end to her fucking in front of his younger brothers and sisters.