When any of the women of the natives is delivered, she goes immediately to the water and washes herself and the infant; she then comes home and lies down, after having disposed her infant in the cradle, which is about two feet and a half long, nine inches broad and half a foot deep, being formed of straight pieces of cane bent up at one end, to serve for a foot or stay.
When the boys are about 12 years of age, they give them a bow and arrows proportioned to their strength, and in order to exercise them they tie some hay, about twice as large as the fist, to the end of a pole about 10 feet high. He who brings down the hay receives the prize from an old man who is always present: the best shooter is called the young warrior, the next best is called the apprentice warrior, and so on of the others, who are prompted to excel more by sentiments of honour than by blows.
If any of their young people happen to fight, which I never saw nor heard during the whole time I resided in their neighborhood, they threaten to put them in a hut at a great distance from their nation, as persons unworthy to live among others; and this is repeated to them so often, that if they happen to have had a battle, they take care never to have another. I have already observed that I studied them a considerable number of years; and I never could learn that there were ever any disputes or boxing matches among either their boys or men.
As the children grow up, the fathers and mothers take care each to accustom those of their own sex to the labors and exercises suited to them, and they have no great trouble to keep them employed; but it must be confessed that the girls and the women work more than the men and the boys. These last go to a hunting and fishing, cut the wood, the smallest bits of which are carried home by the women; they clear the fields for corn, and hoe it; and on days when they cannot go abroad they amuse themselves with making, after their fashion, pick-axes, oars, paddles and other instruments, which once made last a long while. The women on the other hand have their children to bring up, have to pound the maize for the subsistence of the family, have to keep up the fire and to make a great many utensils, which require a good deal of work and last but a short time, such as their earthen ware, their matts, their clothes and a thousand other things of that kind.
The boys and girls, from the time they are three years of age, are called out every morning by an old man, to go to the river; and here is some more employment for the mothers who accompany them thither to teach them to swim. Those who can swim tolerable well make a great noise in winter by beating the water in order to frighten away the crocodiles, and keep themselves warm.
The reader will have observed that most of the labor and fatigue falls to the share of the women; but I can declare that I never heard them complain of their fatigues, unless of the trouble their children gave them, which complaint arose as much from maternal affection as from any attention that the children required. The girls from their infancy have it instilled into them, that if they are sluttish or unhandy they will have none but a dull awkward fellow for their husband; I observed in all the nations I visited, that this threatening was never lost upon the young girls.
I would not have it thought, however, that the young men are altogether idle. Their occupations indeed are not of such a long continuance; but they are much more laborious. As the men have occasion for more strength, reason requires that they should not exhaust themselves in their youth; but at the same time they are not exempted from those exercises that fit them for war and hunting. The children are educated without blows; and the body is left at full liberty to grow, and to form and strengthen itself with their years.
They have still, I allow, a great deal of more spare time than the women; but this is not all thrown away. As these people have not the assistance of writing, they are obliged to have recourse to tradition, in order to preserve the remembrance of any remarkable transactions; and this tradition cannot be learned but by frequent repetitions; consequently many of the youths are often employed in hearing the old men narrate the history of their ancestors, which is thus transmitted from generation to generation. In order to preserve their traditions pure and uncorrupt, they are careful not to deliver them indifferently to all their young people, but teach them only to those young men of whom they have the best opinion.
— from The History of Louisiana, by M. LePage du Pratz, 1774
As she raised up, a pain struck her in the back and moved on around in front, down low. She clasped her hands against her body and said, “Oh, no, it can’t be that; the baby han’t due till April or the first of May. Jest an upset stomach; we’ve been eating too much of the same thing.”
As she lifted the heavy latch to open the door, she saw a long hickory stick leaning against the side of the house. Nick had cut that the other day for ElCaney to ride as a horse. She took the hickory stick in one hand and the bucket in the other, and using the “horse” as a cane, she braced herself against the wind and started to the spring.
A thin sheet of ice had frozen over the top of the spring. She took her stick and tapped lightly on the ice and dipped her bucket in. Turning, she hurried back up the path. She saw that she had forgotten to close the door behind her after she had come out. As she set the bucket of water down on the side of the table, another pain hit her, much harder than the first. And as she grasped the edge of the table for support, she knew she had been fooling herself. It was her time, and the baby was saying, “Here I come, ready or not.”
She filled the iron tea kettle with water and set it before the fire, off to one side. Here it would soon be warm and out of her way, so she could bake some bread. She thought, “I will need all the strength I can muster, so I won’t take time to fix a plum out-and-out mess; I will just make a snack for me and ElCaney.”
The thought never entered her mind to be afraid; it was just something that had to be done. “Women were made to bear children; children, the Good Book had said ... in pain you shall bear them.” Of course she did not enjoy pain, but it was something to be gotten over with. She tried to keep her mind on the great joy she would have when it was over.
It wasn’t long before ElCaney woke up. “Oh, Maw, I smell hotcakes and meat, and I shore am hungry.”
“Well, jump up, son, and eat. Don’t mind putting your shoes on, fer soon as you eat you have to go back to bed.”
“You know I mean what I say and I say what I mean.”
After they had eaten, she made ElCaney go back to bed.
“Turn ye face toward the wall and don’t look around till I tell ye,” said Frankie.
“But, Maw, why?” “Do as I say and no ‘why’ to it.” She wished Caney wasn’t here; he was too young.
“You know I told you how the ole Hoot Owl was goin to bring us another little un.”
Another pain came so hard and sharp that she sank to the floor, caught her breath, and murmured, “Please God, let me keep my mind, so I can take care of this little un You’re sendin me.” She realized the baby was being born. She could not even get to the bed, and pulling Caney’s pallet before the fire, she braced herself for the coming of her child.
In less than an hour Caney, still facing the wall, heard a small, weak cry almost like a kitten, and he said, “Can I look now, Maw?”
“Now listen, Caney, and listen good. Ye take that hickory stick Nick cut fer ye a hoss and knock down some of them wearin thangs on that are pole and ye bring me my underskirt, that white un, and bring me some twine from that wood box under the bed. And reach me the knife from the table.”
“And hurry, son.”
And Caney scrambled from the bed, feeling very important as he got all the things his maw had asked for. Still hearing the small whimpering voice, he could not believe it was a baby’s, it was so low and weak.
It seemed to him like hours before his mother called him to her side and showed him what she had wrapped in her white underskirt. And when he looked he almost gasped. “But, Maw, it’s so puny.” “Yeah, under three pounds is my guess, but ye know he has this whole big world to grow in. He is almost as small as a kitten.”
And ElCaney answered, “Kitten, Maw! Why he han’t as big as a kitten’s eye.”
And that, my dear grandchildren, is how my father became known as Kitteneye. Although the name written in the Good Book was Isom B. Slone, he was to be stuck with the name Kitteneye all his born days.
— from Verna Mae Slone’s family history What My Heart Wants to Tell
Ouida was three years my senior and one of those small, wiry little girls with bright eyes and a quick wit. Her tongue could be sharp — but she was born knowing that discretion is essential to survival. Early on she adopted me. We were the youngest of a large Georgia family and the novelty of children had worn off. I was her slave, companion, handyman, guinea pig and sentry. She was my teacher, disciplinarian and protector.
I owe most of my pre-school education to Ouida. She taught me the important lessons of my life — how to tie my shoes and the difference between a bow and a hard knot. She showed me the way to make pigs out of may pops and matches. She knew how to dam up a branch and make a wading pool and how to catch a June bug and tie a string to its leg and listen to it hum.
She warned me to watch out for nettles, backsaddles, wasps, bees, hornets, bulls, setting hens, old wells, quicksand and snakes.
Ouida taught me the important differences between a white lie and a black one. She showed me how to notch a sweet gum tree and make chewing gum from the sap, and how to make a toothbrush from blackgum twigs; how to recognize and use rabbit tobacco; how to cause a mean dog to turn tail by running toward it, opening and closing an umbrella.
Her reprimands were usually sufficient to keep me in line, but now and then it took a shove or slap on the rump, or a rap on the head with her sharp, bony little knuckles. She never allowed anyone else to touch me outside of a fair fight. She reserved that right for herself.
We had visitors one day and it was my sister who made the daring proposal that we, our niece and a little neighbor girl take off our clothes and run up and down Cedar Creek buck naked. She was our leader and we followed squealing and splashing — and it was here that I made the amazing discovery that all little girls look exactly alike from the neck down. This was a very important part of my education.
One cold winter’s day a day I’ll never forget — I was sitting before an open fire perched on a straight chair, my shoe heels holding my feet on the top rung. I stared into the fire, my skinny legs encased in black ribbed stockings, eating a sausage in a biscuit.
My sister was on the floor, sewing together some bits of cloth for a quilt covering. When I had eaten to the point where the sausage expired and the bread continued, I threw the remaining crescent shaped crust into the fire. The explosion that erupted from my sister, that sage of tender years, would not have been greater had the bread been TNT.
“Don’t you know it’s a sin to burn bread!’’ she shouted with all the conviction and fervor of an aroused Baptist.
I knew I was in for a lecture that would curl my toes.
“You never burn anything that some creature can eat! You should throw it outdoors so a bird, cat, dog or chicken can eat it! It’s a bad sin to waste anything to eat!”
Realizing that my soul was in jeopardy, I asked, choking out the words, if she thought I was going to hell for this fresh sin.
She saw my anxious face and relented — just a little. “Naw — I guess not this time. You didn’t know what you were doing and God won’t hold it against you. But don’t ever do it again or He will!”
I would have cried with relief but tears weren’t allowed.
All of this happened a long, long time ago. We are scattered now — our family — but the old homeplace is still there, tracked over with age and peeling paint. It housed the yesterday that shaped me for today - a place, a boyhood and my sister Ouida. She knew everything.
— Danton Sims is a writer now living in Hartsville, South Carolina
Despite all the different doctors who came to our house, Mama got worse and worse. Finally a big black hearse arrived early one night — hearses served as ambulances too back then— and took her away to the hospital. She never came back alive.
I had just turned eight; my sister Wardelle was not quite seven. Then there were three-year-old Jewel and Mickey, who was not quite two. My older sister Erdean was grown and married, and living in Lousiville, too far away to help us much.
This left me in charge of the house. Luckily I had watched Mama quite a lot, and already knew the basics of house-keeping.
The cooking was plain and simple. We had Great Northern beans, biscuits and potatoes every day. I made biscuits twice a day, and cooked enough food for dinner to last through supper.
Wardelle was my helper. Sometimes we would get to playing and forget the beans that were cooking. They would burn and stick to the bottom of the big iron pot. If we noticed in time, we would throw the whole lot out and start over. But often we just had to scrape off the good beans, clean the pot and heat them back up. Dad hated his beans scorched worse than anything.
Washing dishes seemed to take us forever. Wardelle and I could never agree on whose turn it was to wash and who was supposed to dry. One day we got so mad at each other that Wardelle threw a fork at me. We realized we had to work something out. We agreed that one would wash as fast as she could while the other ran five laps around the smokehouse. Then we would switch. This helped turn the long chore into a race.
I had to wash all the kids’ hair once a week. Jewel always managed to disappear when her turn came. One time I couldn’t find her anywhere. I was sure she had fallen in the well and drowned. I pried the heavy top off of it and peered into the dark hole, never realizing that a three-year-old girl could never get the top off in the first place, much less put it back on after falling inside. Finally, she emerged from the tangles of the grape arbor.
Mickey used to scare me too. He tried to follow Dad around all over the farm, and then would get sleepy and just lay down wherever he happened to be. One day, after a long search that was nearing the panic stage, we saw an old man coming up the road carrying a child. “Y’all missin a boy?” he yelled. He had found Mickey asleep on the banks of a creek. When the old man woke him up and tried to ask him his name and where he lived, all Mickey could say was “Daddy’s boy.”
One neighbor wanted to take Mickey to raise. She said she thought that would help out a lot. But Dad said he was determined to keep us all together. That I’m thankful for; I can’t imagine being without a one of them.
— Eranelle Bums now lives and writes in Jeffersonville, Indiana.
Lacking roots, aliens must learn to live by their wits. Fortunately, Southern women are raised with a truly horrifying set of skills — the ability to get exactly what they want through the most devious means available. It could be something in the water supply. And fortunately, Jews are raised with an unquestionable instinct for survival. It must be something in the pastrami.
1955: A picky eater, I tried desperately with the few words at my seven-year-old command to de scribe ham to my mother. We never had it at home, in Lenoir, North Carolina, but we got it at school and I lived for it — this wondrous, exotic, salty meat.
1959: At the age of 11 my best friend Marsha told me I’d be real popular if I’d learn how to dance and roll my hair. I did both.
1960: Daddy forbade me to take the New Testament Bible class that was part of the junior high curriculum, so I stayed in homeroom and mastered yet to-be-uttered words like eleemosynary and pterodactyl for local spelling bees. I began to savor the prospect of being a heathen. With not a prayer for salvation.
1968: I chose to major in Comparative Religion.
1958-1964: We drove all the way to Charlotte (about 90 miles away) every Sunday for Sunday school. My father was determined to inject his offspring with some Jewishness in that Southern Bapdismal wilderness. I suspect I was a stranger creature to those city Jews than I was at home. I was certainly more interested in boys than in Hebrew, but since I didn’t live in Charlotte I was mostly excluded from the social whirl. An alien, albeit in weejuns, villagers and circle pins.
1964-66: Now there was a Jewish Center in Hickory (only about 20 miles away) and we had to go to Sabbath services. Every Friday night. Of course, Friday night is THE high school football night which is THE social event of the week and I missed almost every game. I began to get hateful.
1980: I still don’t understand the first thing about football.
1966: Although voted MOST LIKELY TO SUCCEED — by one vote (my best friend and also contender for the title voted for me) — I did not make it to the Homecoming Court.
1980: I have never recovered from this.
1966: I did, however, make it to the North Carolina Jewish Debutante Ball.
1980: I have no memory of that event. 1966-1970: I always believed that “life” would not begin until I made my escape from the xenophobic South. So I headed North to Baltimore. But my Long Island Jewish Princess roommate thought she would DIE every time I said something intelligent with a Southern accent. She was shocked to find that I had a working knowledge of water faucets and also knew enough about electricity to recognize a wall outlet.
1970: Homesick, I longed for North Carolina. Homesick, I came home.
1974: Dear Ruby, I can’t make it to Chapel Hill this weekend. I’m not feeling well. Maggie isn’t doing well either. One side is completely paralyzed and she can’t talk plain. Well, that’s the way we’re all going to go. Your father and I don’t have many years to go either. Love, Mom.
Lenoir. Alice is home. Her father recently dead. Her mother with cancer. We look at photos of her father fishing, her father at the Moose Lodge, her mother graduating. She shows me a stack of faded ribboned letters that certify her Mayflower past, her rootedness in the land, proof of her American nobility.
My ghosts are here. Separate from the ghosts of my father which dwell in the Carpathians and the ghosts of my mother which lurk in Berlin. My parents cannot understand this — that my ghosts are here. Even when they elude me, I am certain they own the key to my being whole.
I walk down the streets where I contemplated suicide at the age of 12.
After my day with Alice I search for signs of my own nobility. Scion of wanderers, I am just as documented. 1 grasp at old photographs but they mean nothing — a grandmother on her way to butchery by the Nazis? A cousin snapped at a Bar Mitzvah? The contemporary Polaroids among them are jarring. I cannot identify those faces either.
Lacking information, I am at sea. Dispossessed of this tribal continuum.
I become frantic. Posterity. Who will say of me, of my faded photograph, wasn’t she beautiful? As a friend confessed to me that she always had a crush on my father, will someone confess these same thoughts to my son 10 years after the fact, 10 years after the beauty?
Who knows what even to wish for? Beauty? Sons? Confessions?
There’s a kind of freedom in being an alien. Since nobody expects you to behave appropriately in the first place, all outrages, if not quite tolerated, are at least comprehensible.
I have taken to identifying myself as a Southern Jewess.
I expect this to explain any discernible tragic flaws.
— Ruby Lerner
When I was 15 my mother moved back home to Fayetteville, North Carolina, from New York. In need of cash, she pawned a Polaroid camera. A few weeks later my father helped me get the camera out of pawn and I became pretty good with that Polaroid 103.
Around the comer from my house was a club called the Savoy Supper Club. My father would go to that club from time to time. And after seeing some folk there taking and selling photographs, one day he suggested that I go to the club to sell pictures. I said, reluctantly, “Well.” He said, “Well, why don’t you then!?” He ushered me on, bought the necessary film and flashbulbs, and talked to the owner of the place.
When he first took me out there, I was nervous, to say the least. I had never been in the club at night and was too young to pay and enter at the door if I had wanted to. Dad would sit back and observe me for a while, then he’d call me over and say, “Listen, you ought to move around more, ask more people — greet them and tell them what you have to offer.” He’d then sit back again and watch to make sure no one was “clipping” or “messing” with his son. I got the hang of it in spite of the threats like, “Give me your money or I’ll whip your ass,” or open homosexual advances: “When are you gonna let me pluck you.”
I was scared, but it was challenging and exciting. It was also a way for me to earn some money. I was able to help my mother buy toys and other things for my younger sisters; I bought my own clothes and a car while still in high school.
I worked that job until I left to go to college. By that time the business had grown. I had contracted with three clubs and hired photographers to work in each. I traded cameras about every three months at one of the many local pawn shops. I’d pay 15 or 20 dollars with my trade-in for another model.
I traded them in cause using them every week would wear them out. Night club business in 1969 was really fine. So good that the brother-owner closed the Savoy and opened up a bigger joint. However, with the move came competition. The owner decided to allow someone else to take photographs. When I confronted the owner, he said, “Well, both of you do it.” I said “Alright,” but I knew that it would mean a cut in profit. I was angry and depressed. Again, my father came to my aid: “Don’t worry. Just go out and do a better job.”
Knowing that my photos were better, I would photograph couples that the other guy already photographed — free of charge, so they could compare. I began offering guarantees, discounts on volume, free photos. I was also a young kid “hustling to make it.” Black folk liked seeing a young black kid trying to make an honest dollar. After three weeks of doing battle, my competition left. But working at the club was not all fun and games. I also had to deal with Afrikan-Americans who had adopted as their model the values and appearances of white folk. “Make me light, now,” they would say. I was pleased that there were other Afrikan-Americans who, being proud of their Afrikanness and ebony complexion, would be dissatisfied if the picture showed them lighter than they really were.
I learned to deal with folk who were angry or stoned and didn’t want to pay for their pictures. One fellow even threatened to shoot me cause a photograph “didn’t look like his wife.” This was no idle threat. The man went to his car to get his pistol. Immediately, I borrowed a gun from a friend inside the club. And while talking to his wife about the photos, I “accidentally” brushed open my coat — displaying my borrowed gun. A few minutes later, when her husband returned, she convinced him that a fight over the picture wasn’t worth the trouble. To say that I was relieved was an understatement. I had never fired a gun in my life!
On balance, the years at the club were great. During this time, I was developing my political ideas about oppression, liberation and racism; I was writing about my frustrations at King's being killed, reading Malcolm and helping to organize the Black Student Union at Terry Sanford Senior High. Through the club I was, in another way, in touch with poor black people. What I saw there was some of the beauty and ugliness of my people, which enabled me to see better some of the ugliness and beauty in myself. And all of this happened around the corner from my house.
— Wekesa Madzimoyo
I arrived at Clayborn Temple at about 8:50 a.m. because I thought that the march was scheduled to start at 9:00 a.m. However, when I got my sign reading “Mace Won’t Stop the Truth,” I joined the marchers already waiting in the streets. From the talking, laughing and waves given by people to familiar friends or acquaintances, it made me feel that this really was a “holiday march.” As 1 walked along, I began reading some of the signs that ranged from “I Am a Mom” to “Loeb, Kiss My Ass.” While standing there in the march looking around, I could see the age level ranged from a baby in a carriage to an elderly lady of about 65. I laughed and said to my sister and Barbara that no one wants to be left out of the parade.
As we stood there, we learned that the march would not leave Clayborn Temple until about 10:30 a.m. or 11:00 a.m. For various moments there would be a certain kind of quietness present. At about 9:30 a.m. the whirlybirds (about three) that were flying over the march area were beginning to irritate the marchers. The teenagers from the high school areas began to make up various chants concerning Loeb. However, each time the whirlybirds would come in close, everyone seemed to become angry and thus the whole crowd began to hold their individual signs up and make jeering remarks. I must even admit that the whirlybirds were causing me to become frustrated, because it seemed as though we were in a cage with guards men flying over us to keep watch. . . .
As the march turned on Beale Street, the crowd was changing moods. I noticed that hatred was present on the faces of many. I also noticed that they were getting angry because of the policemen lined up and down the street. I also noticed that most of the policemen had a somewhat jeering smile on their faces.
I had just reached Beale and Third when some of the marchers had turned around and said for everybody to go back to the church. This really set the first sparks for violence. A few of the militant marchers present were saying, “No, don’t run around, keep marching.” I suddenly realized that I didn’t know what to do. I had a series of mixed emotions. After my sister told me that she was going on, I decided that I would march on too. About three minutes later, I heard windows breaking and I noticed that some of the crowd started to run. I headed toward a street that was lined with policemen (about eight), and for a few minutes panic overtook them because they started running away from the crowd and I noticed that one of them stopped and put his hand on his gun as if to say, “What am I running for, I have a gun.” He then stopped and started back toward Beale, and the other policemen that were running stopped and pulled their guns and started going back toward the scene of the violence.
As I was running, I noticed that I had left my sister and I called to Barbara and told her I had to go back. As we arrived on Beale, I saw my sister still standing and looking. Suddenly 1 noticed that the violence seemed to die down, but I heard a voice coming from a senior at LeMoyne College. He was carrying a stick saying, “Everybody that’s scared, get behind me and don’t run.”
Then everything started again. This time I noticed that the stores were being looted and glasses were breaking. My sister and I started running once again. When we got a few feet from Beale, I looked back and could see the police riding down Beale at about 70 miles per hour. 1 could also see policemen running with their guns in one hand and sticks in the other one. Fear overtook me and I was trying to find a way home. As I looked around hoping that violence had stopped on Beale, I saw a policeman beat a man until he fell balled up as if lurching in great pain. I also noticed that about three or four policemen ran from their position to get a lick in on the man who was already down. I began to cry and wonder how could something like this happen in Memphis.
As the three of us started walking back toward Beale, I stopped and said we couldn’t go because I showed them the fumes from mace and tear gas. However, it was too late to stop. Our eyes began to burn and water. Just as I started feeling sorry for myself, I saw a man coming up the street with his shirt off holding it up to his head. His face was covered with blood and his undershirt was soaked. His shirt seemed so saturated until it seemed as though you could wring the blood out of it. I began to cry because I thought this was the worst thing that 1 could see. He stopped a car that was passing by. He didn’t know the driver or any of the passengers but he asked them to take him to the hospital. I then made my desperate plea for us to try to get home.
As we started walking towards Beale, the various TV reporters passed us zooming as if they were in a squad car. We finally made it to Vance Avenue, and I said that the buses were passing people up and that we could go to my grandfather’s tailoring shop and wait there until he could take us home. As we started walking near Vance and Third where his shop was located, we passed a Loeb’s Bar-B-Q with two squads of policemen with helmets standing in front, and one was saying that they should get back into their cars and see what the other guys were doing. We knew that he was referring to the other policemen. From listening to him, I felt hard and bitter because I knew that more men like him were down on Beale beating my people and getting sheer enjoyment from beating people. However, we finally made it to our grandfather’s shop safely and we stayed there until about 4:00 p.m.
I feel that the other incidents that I witnessed are too lengthy to put in this one paper, but I would like to say that this was only a sample of the worst that is about to come.
— from a report written by a LeMoyne College freshman shortly before Martin Luther King was murdered
Bachelor Uncle, A Photograph
Vernon’s eyes kindle still.
The others said only:
“Vernon never married;
he was very serious-minded and
never took any interest in the girls.
He always dressed up fine,
even for picnics.
Nobody could say a prettier prayer.
He was made a deacon very young.”
But Uncle, I know.
You gave me my own gifts.
Once, with you beside,
I saw myself in a still creek pool.
You laughed, blew ripples,
then let me look again.
(Next birthday you gave me polished agate
plucked from that creek side.)
Once, when time was ripe
you told me the history of passion:
Calvin, of the Harley-Davidson
across Soco and on into Georgia;
Daniel, poet who died young in Georgia;
Andrew, who never came back from Normandy.
These were not secrets, but air and water.
Now, dear Vernon, I have you
to thank for almost everything.
—by Dwight Childers
Danton Sims is a writer now living in Hartsville, South Carolina. (1980)
Eranelle Bums now lives and writes in Jeffersonville, Indiana. (1980)
Wekesa Madzimoyo is a staff member of the Institute for Southern Studies and was previously director of the Bi-City Center for Children and Youth in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (1980)