Dirty Rice and Neckbones
1955: Greenwood, Mississippi
Aw, shuckie now. Kong Lee Junior is looking just as sharp!
Turn around child, let me see you good. I declare, a good serge suit is fit for any season. You got those Stacy Adams spit-shined so bright I can near about see my face. But how you gonna come in here toting a suitcase? Don’t tell me you’re trying to go somewhere with college about to start.
Lord, you’re as stove-up and jumpy as grease on a griddle. You always were a restless soul, never could keep still. Quit all that shifting and shinning, boy. Just answer my question.
Did you say, Chicago? That’s where you’re fixing to go? Time you get up there you’ll be turning around to get back before your classes start. Oh, you’re planning on staying? Well, that’s some troublesome news.
I hope you got time to sit down to a good plate of food. Won’t be no Granny Vera’s cooking up Chicago way. There’s a pot of neckbones on the back burner and I just cooked up a mess of collards. I had half a mind to make skillet cornbread then I got a taste for dirty rice.
Don’t think I don’t see you inching for the door, ain’t set down your grip since you got here. How you gonna slip into your great-grandpa’s grocery then try to slip out again? I ain’t seen you in a coon’s age, boy. Come round this counter and give Granny Vera some sugar.
I can see you’re just itching to catch that train. Child, I don’t care a bit more than nothing about no train, least of all that traitorish Yellow Dog. Don’t seem right the same tracks your great-grandpa helped lay should be carrying another one of his away from here.
You know what they say about trains, anyway. If you miss one, there’ll soon come another. You don’t want to be riding on an empty stomach no how. It’s a long way up to Chicago and you know they don’t serve Coloreds in the dining car.
If you ain’t got your ticket yet, might as well take that bag to your old room and stay the night. That gal ain’t sweet milk, no matter how much she might look it. She ain’t gonna spoil before morning. If she wants you, Junior, she’ll wait.
Let granny pack a shoebox to take with you in the morning. I’ll fry a chicken and angel you up some eggs. Might even bake that chocolate cake you like. Now, don’t be talking no deviled eggs or devil’s food cake to me. Won’t be no type of deviltry in Granny Vera’s kitchen.
Lordy, what’s that smell? Sure hope my rice ain’t burning. Run, move that pot off the fire. If dirty rice gets scorched at the bottom it makes the whole pot taste nasty.
Umph. Old Arthur got these knees just-a creaking like a rusty gate. Help me up out this chair. We’ll sit on the back porch and visit while we eat. I got buttermilk in the Frigidaire. If you want hot sauce on your meat, there’s a bottle yonder on the shelf.
Now put that fork right down, Junior. Neckbones ain’t no flatware kind of food. You grab ahold with your fingers and suck out the meat. I hear you mumbling “slave food.” You ain’t been off to college one good year and already turning your nose up at the food you were raised on. You eat this plate of food and better not waste a bit. Then granny got some talk for you, Kong Man Lee Junior. Yes, I called all four of your names, so you know this is serious business.
I might can’t persuade you from leaving here tomorrow but I aim to say my piece. Who knows when you’ll come around again and I might not be here when you do. At 92 years old, I’ll be going to meet my maker soon enough.
I’ve done enough wandering to know why you want to get in the wind. Lord knows it’s wrong what was done to that boy. When they found him in the Tallahatchie with that cotton-gin fan around his neck, I cried like it was my child.
But that’s no cause for you to go running off to where nobody knows you, and nobody wants to know. Emmett Till is gone, God rest his soul. Leaving here won’t bring him back. Ain’t no cause to be spinning yourself around like a betsy bug, running from your own life. I know because I’ve been there.
Besides, I hear Chicago’s got that cold bitter wind, they call him the Hawk. He’ll chill you clean to the bone. What if you come into sickness up north with nobody to see after you?
You got uncles down in Jackson, kinfolks up in Memphis. There’s your cousins in Little Rock and Jody Payne’s people in Tutwiler. Yes, I know your father’s never done right by you, but the devil you know is a dang sight better than the angel you don’t.
If you got to get away from here, go where you got people. Don’t be like that mother of yours, cutting and running for parts unknown, don’t care that she had a son needed raising.
You think life is hard down here in the Delta? Imagine how it must have been for the man you were named for. You’re too young to remember your Great Grandpa Lee, shanghaied out of China near a hundred years back. That man watered cane fields with his blood and built railroads with his sweat.
At least you ain’t got marks on you, no cane welts up and down your arms or whip strikes
across your back. You don’t even have it like I did back in 1877, coming straight out of the sixth grade and off into the fields. You see all these nicks on my fingers and hands?
I never wanted you or your mama to be working the fields like I did as a kid. The vilest thing in tarnation, having to harvest the stuff that might become some Kluxer’s robe.
You never had to pick no cotton, praise the Lord. All you know is the softness and the whiteness of it. You never felt no barbs to make your fingers bleed. You never had to face no viper with a mouth waiting open like a ripe cotton boll. And neither have you had to hear how you were almost born a slave.
Lord, didn’t I get tired of those stories?
1865-1880: Bethel Bluff, Mississippi
I hadn’t got myself born yet but the way I hear tell it, when the Union Army marched through Mississippi, White folks went scrambling like buckshot in a flock of geese. With no overseer to keep them on the plantation, a lot of the Coloreds were packing up and leaving too.
When Mama heard freedom was coming she wouldn’t let them send for the baby catcher. She was already too big to run and Papa wasn’t leaving Bethel Bluff without her. That’s where my people come from, just a patch of river dirt up in Bolivar County.
My mama said she wasn’t bringing no slave into the world. She was going to hold onto herself ‘til freedom time for sure. When it got to where she couldn’t take the pains no more, that baby had plumb stopped moving. The midwife said she had waited too late. Mama sweated and struggled, thinking she was steady pushing out a stillborn child.
“Seems like you got old in there waiting,” Mama told me. “All wrinkled up and bald as a badger. Didn’t cry one peep, just looked me in the eye like some little old man.”
That little old man was me, the first and freeborn child of Sadie Mae and James Roy Freeman. I remember Papa saying: “It’s a danged sight lucky we stayed behind. Who would have thought it, Vera Lee? The one time slavery was safer than freedom.”
And Mama saying too: “Girl, you near ‘bout saved our lives.
Papa’s big sister had headed north when the Yankees came. “Them niggers went running plumb in the wrong direction. What I look like marching into the belly of the whale? My name ain’t Jonah, it’s Lula Mae Freeman. Honey, I took my black tail to Memphis and lived to tell the story. I tried to get folks to come go with me. But no, they had to go running behind the Yankees.”
You see, some of them Coloreds went following the Union Army, thinking to get their mule and forty acres. They got naught but misery for it, rounded up like hogs and run into the Devil’s Punchbowl between the high bluffs and Mississippi River down in Natchez. I never lived these stories, but heard them so often they got deep in my bones.
They penned people up in that holler and wouldn’t let them out but the ones they made to work. Menfolk mostly, busting and building and felling and digging with rough tools and no wage, just like the slavery they were running from.
Can’t you picture them huddled up, singing old songs to keep up their spirits?
No more slavery chains for me
Many thousand gone
Mississippi White folks had worked and whipped the slaves nearly to death. Our people didn’t have much to eat but most of them ain’t starved, that’s what Papa told me.
Such slop as the slave masters saw fit to give was increased with whatever our folks managed to raise on their patch, fish out the river, or game from the woods. There might even be a piece of fatback or bacon they slipped from the master’s smokehouse. You couldn’t call it stealing when the hog was raised and butchered by the very ones that wasn’t meant to taste it.
I sift the meal and ya gimme the husk,
I bake the bread and ya gimme the crust,
I peel the meat and ya gimme the skin,
and that's how my mama's troubles begin.
This is what you call hamboning, patting juba on your legs or chest, any part you could reach. Why they call it a hambone? Child, who you asking? I know I’m old as the hills, but I wasn’t around when they named it. Maybe they sang about what they didn’t have. White folks would sooner throw a bone to their dog than give it to a Colored. If you wanted any meat but the throwaway parts, you had to take your chance and sneak it.
Lincoln’s army was meant to change all that. Yankees were supposed to be sweeping through the South with the sweet breath of freedom. And what did they do? The Coloreds that didn’t starve or ail to death in that Devil’s Punchbowl got shot running off or drowned crossing the river. Many thousand gone and their sweet breath of freedom was an early grave.
I hear the peaches grow big down there but no soul dares to taste them. They know what’s buried in that dirt. They know what feeds those trees.
These Southern White folks can be wicked but the Yankees had their ways. Such a hurting thing as was done to our people, and these are the folks you would go live amongst? How are they better than those down here that murdered Emmett Till?
Yet we didn’t look at Yankee schoolma’ams like we did some of those devilish Union soldiers. They didn’t turn out in ringlets and bows like Southern ladies did. Those women had work to do and wouldn’t let no hoop skirts or corsets get in the way.
From the time I was little bitty I wanted to be just like Miss Olivia Moss and Miss Ellen Fowler at the Colored People’s Freedom School six miles up the way in Rosedale. School was my little piece of heaven. Yellow Dog train passing by every day would rattle that old building like a barrel of kindling.
I’d come home and play rock teacher from the steps of our shotgun cabin. I’d sit Lincoln and Sarah on the ground to teach them what I learned that day. It wasn’t but three steps up from the ground but if they got their lessons right they could pass up to the third grade. The twins couldn’t even talk good, yet I’d have them counting rocks and drawing numbers in the dirt.
I schooled up through the sixth grade and stayed on a year to help with the younger pupils. I wanted Memphis for my high schooling. Aunt Lula said she was doing good up there. I had never been further from home than Rosedale where we schooled at. So believe me child, I know how you’re feeling, feet fairly itching to hit the road. I’ve had them itchy feet myself.
Bethel used to have its uptown and downtown, the bluffs and the bottomlands. Out beyond town were the big cotton plantations where Delta dirt was so rich people swore you could “plant a nickel and grow a dollar tree.” Our rocky little sharecrop up in the bluffs didn’t yield much, but that’s what saved us in 1873.
Bethel Landing was small but sprightly. We had a courthouse, a jailhouse, a saloon and even a good hotel. Those that lived downtown got mail delivered straight to the house, they didn’t even have to walk to the post office to get it. It was the first ferry crossing north of Greenville, taking folks back and forth across to Arkansas. Paddle-wheeling riverboats between Memphis and New Orleans would pull in twice the week.
When high water came in ‘73, Bethel Landing had been sinking for years. Mama and Papa remembered the days when Mississippi rebels took to hiding in the woods at Bethel Bend. From there they would fire on Union ships coming down the river. The Yankees turned around one day and burned the town right to the ground.
Just when the town was rebuilding itself the Union Army came back and dug a trench across the bend. River waters came creeping in, turning the bend into an island. When I was a girl Papa would row out there to hunt and fish. Sometimes he’d bring home a bear carcass. He stopped going when some moonshiners put a blind tiger in the woods, and started cooking corn.
Not many bears around today, but they were common as mud hens back then. Child, you wake one in the winter time, it’ll come up spitting fury and running wild. Ole bear liable to trample everything in its path before it finds somewhere to settle on back to sleep.
I was nine years old when the Mississippi first went to rising. Then the levee broke and the town flooded out. You’d a-thought you were in the days of Noah. Water went to rushing in like a bugger-bear. When that river finally went to bed, it had covered Bethel Landing.
Our high grounds were spared the worse of it, yet what wasn’t washed away got hammered real heavy. We lost more than half the crop that year and had some empty belly days. There was talk of leaving sharecropping and going up to Memphis, but nothing ever came of it.
I used to walk across the cliffs and think about the town underwater. I’d remember block-paved roads busy with people, the brick buildings, the ferry landing. I’d watch paddle-wheelers passing that didn’t stop anymore. I dreamed of being on one of those steamers going down to Natchez or New Orleans, up to Memphis or St. Louis.
The river was our highway back then. When the Mississippi took our town, we found ourselves in the back of beyond. Wasn’t no paved roads for miles. Bethel Bluffs was so far from the railroad station we had to carry a cutlass to get there. We’d hack our way through briars, brambles, and blue cane going to school in the morning. By evening it was growing up again.
I wanted to leave it all behind for a place with paved roads and streetlights. I wanted to go where there were new books to read and new folks to meet and Lord, all kind of new sights to see. I looked at pictures in the newspapers and found myself wondering about those places. Did the winter winds blow any harder? Did the fruit taste any sweeter? I’d even eat one of those haunted Devil’s Punchbowl peaches, just to know the difference.
With baby Jimmy yet in diapers, Mama with another on the way, and the twins starting school, Papa needed help to make the crop. My mother had already lost one set of twins. She’d been hoeing the seedling cotton when a bear climbed up the side of the bluff and went charging through the cottonfield. Mama said it passed so close she could smell the funk.
At least it didn’t get at her, praise the Lord. That bear had probably heard the river pounding at the levee and figured something bad was coming. Wild animals do have that sense about them. But it scared my Mama something awful. The babies came before their time and didn’t live to see sunrise. Papa said he wouldn’t have his wife out pregnant in the fields no more, even if he had to work his ownself near about to death.
He told me how in slavery times a woman with child worked right alongside the men. Sometimes when she couldn’t make her portion the overseer would have a hole dug deep. He’d make her lay with her belly down in it before baring and whipping her back.
Papa had those scars across his back that came from a piece of cowskin soaked in saltwater. He said it cut worse than a horse whip. That leather didn’t just raise up welts, it flayed right into the skin. The marks made his back look like a crazy quilt design. Some people even had those spoiling scars on their arms and legs and faces.
You think you got it hard today? Just think on that one, Junior.
Nobody forced me into the fields. Nobody made me stay in Bethel Bluffs, a place you can’t even find on the map. Yet I knew if I left to school off in Memphis then Lincoln and Sarah would have to stay out. How could I take my blessing and don’t let the twins have theirs?
So I went to the fields with Papa, hoeing and planting and picking and chopping. I gathered these marks on my hands, doing my part to keep us fed. Mama stayed home with baby Jimmy, feeding the hogs and chickens, working the truck patch, weeding the greens, okra, peas, corn, and a little tobacco for Papa’s pipe.
When I got back from the fields I’d help pick hornworms off her tomatoes.
Mama didn’t lose her when the baby came a whole month early. And they didn’t call her after Ole Missus, Mary Crawford either. Mama said they named her high, after Mr. Lincoln’s wife and the mother of Jesus.
Baby Mary was poorly but strong, born no bigger than a minute. There’s two words in that Webster that describes her to a T. Tiny and tenacious! Mary stayed small her whole life but seemed to grow into that great big spirit of hers. She would outlive a terrible plague to come, grow up and marry, have seven of her own, and nary a one of them lost to a lynching.
Keep that in mind, Junior. A lot of us were lost but some of us lived.
After paying Old Man Crawford our furnish—the rent, seed, and tools to work the farm—we still had to give up half the crop. It didn’t leave much to keep seven souls, to clothe our nakedness and buy our provisions: the sugar, rice, coffee, and flour we couldn’t raise ourselves.
Papa said he was too old and tired to go to the Freedom School. Mama went a few times but couldn’t seem to catch on. Soon as I was able to, I became their reading eyes. On evenings with work and supper done, we’d sit out on the porch when the weather was fine. When it was cold or rainy we would light the kerosene lamp and crowd into the kitchen.
Sometimes the schoolteachers gave us old newspapers. They’d be about two or three weeks old, but I’d read them aloud before Mama took them to paper the walls of our cabin. I remember stumbling over big words from the newspaper. It’s the first time I heard about the Chinese. There was a little story and picture drawing to say they were on their way.
Seems I might have saved that story after all these years. Junior, go in my bedroom and fetch that set of shiny red boxes yonder uptop the chiffarobe. There’s a picture of a pig on the lid.
You found it? It looks like just one box, but when you open the lid like this…see, there’s a set of twelve different boxes where one fits right inside the other. They were a courting gift from your great-grandpa that folks call China boxes. See how every one of them has a different animal on the lid? I keep my early memories here in this little rat box.
Here’s what I’m looking for:
"Emancipation has spoiled the Negro and carried him away from the fields of agriculture. Our prosperity depends entirely on the recovery of lost ground, and we therefore say let the Coolies come, and we will take the chance of Christianizing them.”
—Vicksburg Times, 1869.
When I read it out loud Mama and Papa them gave each other a worried look.
“What’s a coolie?” I looked back and forward between them.
“You think it’ll happen?” Mama asked Papa. “They bringing in the Chinamen to take away our work?”
“Don’t fret yourself, Sadie.” Papa shook his head. “That’s just the White folk trying to scare us. Ain’t a Chinese born yet that can out-pick a Colored in the cotton field.”
We always ended the evening with a prayer and a Bible passage. One night I read Scripture from the Book of John. "Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life."
Papa went and winked at Mama. “And that midwife said Verily wasn’t no kind of name to call a baby.”
Mama smiled and nodded back. “That’s how much she knows. Nobody ever went wrong with a good name from the Good Book.”
Here I’d always thought my name was Vera Lee. That’s what I’d always been called. I wrote that name at the top of every lesson. It was on the class attendance roll. I went to the schoolhouse to ask my schoolma’ams about this strange name, “Verily.”
Grab that old Webster yonder on the shelf, the one with the scorched-up cover. I want you to look up this here word, “efficient.” Oh, you know what it means? Well, you the one in college. I ain’t got but a sixth grade education but I’m still learning, praise the Lord.
The northerners were like buckeye hummingbirds among us, darting to and fro. Seemed like they had too much to do and too little time to do it. I think they knew their days were numbered down here in the Delta.
That Yankee talk they talked sounded stiff-starched and proper. I tried to copy after them, snipping off the tails of words that given a will, would mosey along like a slug on a vine. Them Yankees and them Britishes ain’t never been caught drawling no countrified, “Waal, Ver-Lee.”
“Well, Vera Lee,” is how Miss Olivia said it. When she was thinking hard on something, she laid a long finger aside her nose. “Would you care to look it up?”
I ran to the cupboard and got out the big, thick Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language and lugged it to the desk. I could sit up and read it like a storybook sometimes. Such words as are treasured inside it: multitude and pulchritude, truncheons and escutcheons. It’s over 80 years now and I’m still learning new words.
“Verily,” I read out carefully. “Adverb: In truth or verity; as a matter of truth or fact; indeed, fact, or reality; really, truly.”
“You read that quite nicely, Vera. Would you care to use the word in a sentence?”
“Verily I say onto you,” I recited. “That’s from the Good Book, Miss Olivia.”
“That’s a fragment, not a full sentence. Still, I am happy that you know your Bible.”
I shut the dictionary and put it away. Let Miss Olivia and them keep calling me, Vera Lee. That midwife had it right from the beginning. “Verily” was no way to name a child.
I’d been out of school nearly two years when I came into that trouble. It’s some kind of thing when a scrap of paper could cause you your life. You think I don’t know how it is, Junior? I’ve been living here 92 years.
One night I saw a tote slip on top the chester drawers. Papa had brought it home from the gin where they counted and weighed the cotton.
“Papa,” I said. “This don’t look right to me.”
“What you mean, it don’t look right?”
“That man ain’t paid you but $75. We’re supposed to get $10 dollar a bale.” I had helped him count out nine bales that morning. “The way I figure it, Mr. Adams owes another $15.”
Elijah Adams, the cotton agent was the one that used to tug my braid or pat my head when I was small. Mama would always ease me away, just slow enough to get me shed of his hands but not fast enough to seem sassy. Lord help you if a White man thought you were sassing.
“That old corn-cracker,” Mama would whisper when he walked off. That was her Virginny word for a White peckerwood. She’d dust my hair like she was wiping off hoodoo. “Don’t never let White folks rub you on the head, not if you can help it.”
Papa took me to the gin that next day to see about the rest of our money. Mr. Adams got all red in the face and started shaking his finger in mine. “Are you calling me a liar or a cheat, Vera Lee? Which one is it now?”
“Neither one, sir,” I ducked my head. “I just thought you might had made a mistake.”
Now what I want to go and say that for?
“Now, see here, gal. God ain’t made a nigger yet what’s big enough to tell a White man he made a mistake. Uncle Jimmy, you best watch this uppity gal of yours. You don’t want her coming into trouble.”
You know, Junior, I got kinfolks somewhere I ain’t never met and likely never will. I should tell you that my Mama was half-white. Her mother was Cook in the big house kitchen and her father was the master of a Virginia tobacco plantation. The man didn’t claim her as his child but everybody around there knew it. Old Mistress, his wife made my Mama’s life plumb miserable. Then she got good and even.
“Sold down the river,” is how my Mama called it when the slavers snatched her up and carried her Down South. “I wasn’t nothing but a bitty girl, hadn’t even started my bleeding.”
Slavery was bad in Virginia but it was worse here in Mississippi.
Mama had almost let her firstborn die in the womb rather than birth a slave who could be snatched away. She didn’t want to lose nary one of her five, even me, as big as I was. Boys were already coming around but Mama said I was too young for courting. I wasn’t thinking on them poot-butt boys. I still had Memphis on my mind.
When she found out we had been to the gin, Mama snatched off her apron and threw it on the floor. “You ‘bout crazy as a road lizard, Jimmy Roy Freeman. Vera Lee almost died getting born and you want to help that old scalawag finish the job?”
That’s when they decided I would have to leave Bethel Bluff.
You think you know White folks’ vengeance, Junior? There have been more Emmett Tills than you can count. They called it whitecapping back when the Nightriders came around burning up people’s crops. Colored men were getting beat and lynched, and it didn’t stop there.
Twenty were killed in Carrollton after a Colored man spilled molasses on a White man’s coat. Thirty died in Meridian when some of us tried taking up for ourselves in a fight. A White schoolteacher was beat in Clinton when they burned the Colored schoolhouse to the ground. This Emmett Till story is sad, but it ain’t hardly new.
There I was, supposed to had sassed some cracker that was cheating Papa out of his money. You think those Kluxers would have a lick of shame at stringing up a girl? If Papa or Mama tried to stop them, they’d be swinging right there with me.
I thought I was going to Memphis but we still owed at the commissary. There was hardly enough to buy the ticket. I couldn’t go with my pocket empty and be a burden on Aunt Lula.
Miss Olivia said they needed some help at the AME schoolhouse in Yazoo City.
“How I’m going to be somebody’s teacher?” I asked. “As ignorant as I am?”
“Give yourself credit, my dear.” Miss Olivia patted my shoulder. She never once tried to rub my head. “You have six good years of schooling and one as a teacher’s helper. That’s more than can be said for some of those souls down in Yazoo.”
When I took the news to Mama and Papa they were none too happy with it.
“They’re paying good money,” I told them. “Almost $30 a month. Della Clemons is going and we’re rooming with the family. Her uncle pastors a church down there, Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Same name as our town, sort-a, kind-a. It’ll be something like I never left home.”
I had it all figured out. I would work enough for school tuition and save some to send back home. Then I’d be in the wind, sho ‘nuff. Memphis City, here I come!
“You couldn’t find no good Baptist family to room with?” Papa complained. “We Baptists is simple people but them AME niggas be putting on airs.”
Mama nodded. “Sho do. They must think they’re some kinda black-skin White folks. Plus, I hear tell it’s a-plenty them Chinamen down in Yazoo City. God have mercy on their heathen souls.”
“Putting honest Colored people out of work,” Papa added, “such little as we got.”
I had never met a Chinaman but if Mama and Papa said they were heathens, I reckoned they must have been. The newspapers wrote how they be worshipping those idols and smoking that opium. They’d get to gambling away their money then snatching folks up and selling them off to pay the debt. What’s more, the lady Chinamen got their feet tied up so they grew no bigger than a balled up fist.
Maybe it was true. Yet and still, I never knew the Chinese to burn no crosses or force no women. Nor have I known them to cheat no sharecropper out of his due nor threaten to lynch his child for sassing. I never knew this because up until then, I never knew any Chinese, less more that one day I’d be marrying one.
“I ain’t studying no Chinamens,” I told my parents. “I just need to get as far away from Mr. Adams as I can. You know it ain’t safe for me here no more.”
Mama threw her head back and sighed. That was her “giving up” motion. It didn’t keep her from fussing, though. “Why you had to go and sass that corn-cracker, anyhow?”
“I don’t know, Mama. I sure am sorry.”
“Sorry didn’t do it, you did it. But it ain’t your fault, you’s a child. I blame your simpleminded father for taking you to that mill. He should have known better than to cross that old snake. Elijah Adams is the worst kind of White trash.”
“Your mama’s sure right about that.” Papa nodded, just like she hadn’t called him simpleminded. “Adams used to be overseer at Crawford Acres Plantation, the scoundrel.”
So that’s what decided it in the end. I know I always say that the devil you know is better than the angel you don’t. That day my people decided the yellow devil they didn’t know was a darned sight better than the rednecked devil they did.
“You be a good girl down there in Yazoo,” Papa said. “Read your Bible and conduct yourself as the person you were raised to be.”
“And you’s the kind that likes to show off,” Mama reminded me. “Don’t show off your behind. Ain’t every notion that strike your mind need to pass your lips, Ver-Lee.”
Della’s people wouldn’t let her go in the end but that was fine by me. I was almost sixteen, big and grown. At least that’s what I told myself. Come time to go, I almost changed my mind. I had never been more than three miles from home. How was I supposed to travel ninety miles by myself?
I put my few little things in one of Miss Olivia’s old carpetbags. She and Miss Ellen hitched their pony to the buggy and drove me to the station. I took the Peavine train into Greenwood and spent the night at the local schoolma’am’s house. From there I caught a mule cart. We bounced along on a plank road cut through the hills ‘til we came out the other end.
“What about that?” the driver pointed out the view, proud as if he had made it. “You ever seen such a sight in your life?”
“No, sir.” My breath seemed to catch in my throat. “I surely never did.”
Queen City of the Delta lay stretched out before me, and with it my future. In time I would meet and marry Kong Man Lee, the great-grandfather you were named for. Seems like we struggled to getting shed of one trouble only to drag ourselves on to the next.
Me and Mr. Lee were out in the wind a good many year, moving from pillar to post. People around here still call me the Chinaman’s wife, though Mr. Lee’s been gone for a good 20 years.
1955: Greenwood, Mississippi
Let’s us finish eating and go back inside. It’s getting dark now and the skeeters are coming out.
They gossip something terrible in Greenwood. You can’t keep no secrets here. I know you been going around with that hill country gal. Sho’ hope she ain’t in the family way. Don’t let her folks hear tell of it, do they’re liable to give you some of what they gave to Emmett Till.
Your great-grandpa was a Chinese railroad man, a fella nobody thought I should have been married to. So, far be it from me to tell somebody else they shouldn’t do it. We had to go to Kansas, though. They don’t let you marry out of your race here in Mississippi. Neither can you in Tennessee, Arkansas, Alabama, or just about anywhere else in the South.
So jumping the broom with that White gal’s got you giving up college and heading for Chicago? Just know that you’ll be riding in separate cars, at least to the Missouri line.
If you haven’t changed your mind come tomorrow morning, you’ll need to carry something to remind you of home. You take these stories with you when you ride that train. Let them settle in and get deep inside your bones.
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Sandra Jackson-Opoku is the author of the award-winning novel, The River Where Blood is Born, and Hot Johnny (and the Women Who Loved Him), an Essence magazine bestseller in hardcover fiction. She co-edited the anthology Revise the Psalm: Works Celebrating the Writing of Gwendolyn Brooks. Her fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and dramatic works are widely published and produced, appearing in African Risen: A New Era of Speculative Fiction, New Daughters of Africa, Both Sides: Stories from the Border, Obsidian, Taint Taint Taint Literary Journal, Lifeline Theatre, and other outlets. Her many honors include, among others, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, an American Library Association Black Caucus Award, an Esteemed Artist Award from the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, a Globe Soup Story Award, the Circle of Confusion Writers Discovery Fellowship, a Pushcart Prize nomination, and the Hearts Foundation James Baldwin Award.