excerpt from childhood
Can you hear me Mister God? Is they two heavens – Jim Crow heaven for colored folks’n different one for whites?
When me’n Mama is ridin on the bus one day, I look across the aisle to see a woman wearin a nurse uniform sittin by the window. She wearin a blue cape with shiny medals’n a hat like the kind soldier boys wear in the movies. The man sittin beside her keeps pattin her mouth, so she don’t make a mess. Look to me like she gots spit runnin down her chin. I don’t know what to make of it. Durin the bus ride, folks turnin they heads ever which way starin’n laughin ever time the man pats her mouth. I guess he gots enough of them bus people cuz all of a sudden the man stands up’n turns round. He explainin to the bus people, the woman sittin in the seat next to him worked for the Red Cross durin the war, that she was in a Japanese concentration camp’n they cut her tongue out. He tells the bus people he pats her mouth so dribbles don’t get on her uniform. He’s tryin real hard to protect her from gettin her feelins hurt, but they hurt anyways. When he stops talkin, he pulls the cord to let the driver know they wantin to get off. Ever one is real quiet when the man helps the woman to the front of the bus; they lookin straight ahead, not lookin to the left or to the right, not sayin nothin when they get off. No one looks’um in the eye. The bus people keep starin at’um through the window, some lookin down at they laps in shame. I dream bout that nurse. I pray Jesus give her a new tongue.
Mister God, how come you let them cut out her tongue? I don’t want to be nothin like the bus people.
I love goin to church with Mama but I cain’t figure out in my head why if she thirsty, she got to use a different water fountain. She caint go to the white church, she caint go inside the cafeteria, she caint come in the front door to our house. Separate schools, separate churches, separate ever thing for folks like Mama. They even Jim Crow in white families that’s poor as dirt daubers, where color folks take carre of they children. If they trust someone enough to take care of they kids, why don’t they trust’um to drink from the same water fountain? This don’t make sense to me. It jus don’t.
Any color’a folks is welcome in Mama’s church. We have fun dancin in the aisle when they sing, What a Friend I Gots in Jesus. Mama say I’m the only white ever come here. She teachin me how to clap my hands’n sing gospel songs, keepin time while we clap’n sing together. They times I get carried away when me’n Tessie dance in the aisle with the grown ups. Mama laughs til tears roll down her face’n her best Sunday hat falls off. Mama jus laugh and say, “Chile, best you don be singin’n hoppin round like dat in dem white folk’s church cuz iffn you does, dey be callin you lil nappy head girl. I’m givin Tessie’a wupin for teachin you be talkin like a colored girl.”
I’m feelin right at home with Tessie, her bein one of Mama’s grandkids’n all. We best friends’n always play together. Right from the start, we love each other, not mindful of black’n white. Mama say we be lovey dovey cuz Lord made both’a us outta piss’n vinegar. One Sunday, her’n me gets into it over which ones turn it is to be swingin inside the sixteen-wheeler tire hangin on the Oak tree behind Mama’s church by a long rope. Tessie start shoutin at me like I don’t gots ears, “You cheatin little nigger, it’s my turn!” I’m not bout to let that girl get away with this when she know in her cheater’s heart it my turn.
I flip right back at her screamin at the top of my lungs, “No, you cheatin little nigger! My turn!”
Ever one within ten miles hearin us scream “nigger!” “nigger!” “nigger!” back’n forth til Mama’n the other church women come runnin out from choir practice to give us both a lickin. Me’n her still mad as hops’n don’t look at each other. They sit us down then all together, like the Hallelujah Chorus with an “amen” throwd in, they says how “nigger” a very bad word. Mama say if she catch us sayin it again, she gonna stand us in the corner for ten years. She say folks who says that word don’t deserve a best friend. Mama make us face a tree for an hour with both hands behind our backs, cuz we both so bad sayin “nigger.” I swear. After five minutes or so, she start to feel sorry for us. Mama say time up. Me’n Tessie already forgot why we argued in the first place. We laugh’n hug each other as Mama lifts us up in her big arms’n carries us back to the oak tree, where she crams our tail ends back into the sixteen-wheeler tire. We take each others hand’n swing back’n forth holdin onto the tire’n each other for what seem like forever. I take my Cherokee Indian arrowhead outta my coveralls, the one my grandpa gave me for good luck’n I give it to Tessie so she always be rememberin me – forever like. She takes a wad of gum outta her mouth’n gives it to me to finish chewin so I can still taste the juicy fruit. All the while, Mama jus standin there laughin with her hands on her big hips. I notice for the first time how white her teeth is. I say, “Mama, how come you got pearly whites?”
Mama say, “If you black as me, you teeth be pearly white too. But the main reason dey like dis, is cuz you Mama don’t picks round her food like you does. I thank the Lord’n eats’n dat’s why I gots pearly whites’n you doesn’t!”
Another thing bout Mama is she uses ever occasion, ever ques- tion, ever answer, ever birth’n someone’s funeral to drive home the smallest point. With these final words outta her mouth, she turn round’n heads back to church, her big tail end swingin from one side to the other like someone beatin on a tub fulla fat back. But the minute she outta sight, Tessie laughs’n whispers in my ear, “You still a little nigger’n Jesus knows I’m right!”
I laugh’n whisper back in her ear, “You a little nigger too – Jesus told me so last night.”
Not one to leave well enough alone, Tessie say, “Tharon Ann, what wrong with you hair – why you got them long pigtails when you ain’t a pig. How come you hair not like mine? They chicken fat in the kitchen – let’s do each other’s hair then we be the same.”
That girl already planned this out’n I didn’t have sense enough to know it. If Tessie want to have her way, she always be sayin like she recitin the Golden Rule, “Tharon Ann, ain’t no grass growin under my feet!” Shoot fire. I wonder where that girl heard that. I shoot right back at her, “Some people best get outta bed real early to pull wool over my eyes!” But what her and me agree on is once the deeds done, we both gonna look the same. I whisper, “If
Mama hear us say “nigger” again, we in big trouble. Let’s talk pig latin.” But Tessie don’t like nothin with pig in it; she won’t talk it with me cuz she don’t like the way pigs oink. She say we gotta go with her idea’n say “nigger” backwards – then no one gonna know. So “little nigger” becomes “elttil reggin.” That what we start callin each other – “reggin” for short.
“When I howl like a coon dog, it mean Mama close by’n you gots to hide the evidence quick. I be the lookout.” Then we argue over which ones the best howler. I’m of the opinion Tessie was born grabbin hold’a life like some folks wish they could touch a star. She gots no fear. She say me’n her together is a question mark. At first I don’t get it, then she explains that I’m the question part at the top’n she the dot. I gots questions bout ever thing but Tessie just is. Even though the two of us bicker over the littlest thing, we still in perfect harmony, if that don’t sound like the craziest thing ever. After thinkin about it – it sure does. We both in agreement that messin with Mama is dangerous business.In five minutes, Tessie come runnin outta the church kitchen like a streak’a lightnin. Real quick, we hide behind a tree in the woods. I smear chicken fat on her hair to calm it down. She unbraids my pigtails, cuts’um off, then rubs chicken fat on what hairs I gots left.She frizzes it up, fore she pulls a bottle black Shinola boot polish outta her coveralls’n empties it all over me. It takes a while to rub it in, but afterward we real fulla ourselves. Me and Tessie know for sure, we the same now – like real sisters. Me’n her of the opinion we the two purtiest little cheatin “reggins” in town.Mama callin to know where we are. She got her hands on her hips, which is not a good sign cuz she headin our way. We step out from behind the tree grinnin like chessy cats. When Mama gets herself a good look at us, we think she havin a stroke cuz she down on the ground from laughin so hard. She laughs’n laughs’n laughs. Mama laughin so hard she caint hardly stand back up on her feet. Pastor Roy Big John’n two other big men from choir practice, come runnin in our direction like they gotta put out a fire somewheres, but when they see Mama lyin on the ground they start laughin too. They says without a forklift, only Jesus can pull up a woman who gots titties bigger’n a elephant’s tail end. Everbody laughin so hard, tears runnin down they faces. Other church folks come out’n gets caught up in it too. Look to me, like they all bout to pass out on the ground. All in all, Tessie’n me a big hit. But now, Mama gots a problem. Haldane gonna fire her if she bring me home lookin like this. She think fast. We go back to Mama’s house; she put us in a washtub where shoe polish come off easy, but gettin chicken fat outta our hair hurts terrible. Tessie’s mama work two hours tryin to clean us up. Problem is what to do with my frizzed up short hair. Me’n her gonna keep one chopped-off pigtail apiece, for good luck charms. All of a sudden I’m scared. I caint lose her – not never.
“Mama, I’ll tell Haldane I gots bubblegum stuck in my hair’n I cut it all out when you went to the bathroom. I gonna say you already whipped me good so she don’t need to do it agin. Never you mind Mama, one whippin enough!”
Haldane happy these days. When she smiles, I got to wonder what for. I tell Mama over’n over how much I love her til the day I die, that I won’t never forget her even if I move to China with the starvin children. Whenever I ask what heaven’s like, all she ever say is, “Chile you ask too many questions. Mama jus don’t know the answer – it jus the way it is’n iffen you don’t shut dat little mouth, it gonna fall right off!” Mama sure love Jesus. She gots a friendship with him that don’t need questions’n answers. I’m always askin things like, “Mama, you ever talk to him in person like me’n you talkin right now? What’s his last name? Can I meet him fore I go to heaven?”
She go headfirst past my questions’n say Jesus be like the sun, him lovin everbody. Mama say, “Chile, Jesus de Lord’n we his little Jesus sunbeams. Sometimes cloud come in between, but after a spell they be goin away, then we be seein for ourself how he been lookin after us all the time. Amen! Praise Jesus!” Anytime the subject come up bout Jesus, she ends that sentence with, “Amen! Praise Jesus!” So, me’n Tessie start sayin “Amen! Praise Jesus” after ever sentence too. Mama give us a lickin for bein smart alecky’n says, “You two best stop on accounta Jesus got no use for chilren made outta piss’n vinegar. Amen! Praise Jesus!”
One night Haldane comes home from work’n tells everbody she gots another husband, that we got to pack up, cuz we movin to N’arleans. She says, “Tharon Ann, that colored woman caint come
with us, so you can get that out of your little head!”
That jus how she says it, jus shootin it out like “please pass the potatoes,” like it was nothin, like the way I feel bout Mama mean nothin too. I love her same as whites love they white mamas. I cry myself to sleep jus thinkin’a leavin her’n bein left alone with Haldane. Last night I dreamt her singin the jaybird song to me.
Poor little jaybird don’t you cry Mama don’t believe in saying goodbye Poor little jaybird, my oh my, Mama gonna sing you dis lullaby