THESE ARE THE EARLIEST THINGS WE KNEW: RUNNING BAREFOOT ON WHITE Florida sand and red Alabama clay. Sleeping beneath hairy oaks and climbing when we pleased. Clothes was rags and we hardly had shoes, but it was hot most the time, heat rubbing up against you like a drenched dog. Ain’t have electricity or fans or ice the first, so we cooled off in the creek.
Life was all about playing and sweating and splashing and hollering and the buzz of June bugs in summertime. The grunt of pigs rooting under the house. The wakeup call of cows, mules, and roosters. Our mamas yelling from the porch, telling everybody, Come on in and get your supper, now.
Then we turned five and they started us in the fields. We trailed our mamas and daddies down the rows, pulling up weeds, going to and from the well for water. We grew to hate the heat, the sun, the dirt, this thing called work. But soon it became a game of sorts with us children, seeing who could outrace the other.
Then we turned seven and picked our first cotton. Got too tired for running and laughing. Fingers stayed bloody, bruised, and hard. Our skin carried the smelly smell of liniment. Before bedtime, our mamas rubbed it into aching hands and feet.
We wanted to go to school but didn’t. The walk was too long. We was needed at home to plant and harvest. And boys could get more out of schooling, folks said, so it was our brothers who went. We stayed jealous of each other—them craving to be outside, even if they would’ve had to work, and us itching to know how it felt to sit in a schoolroom half the day. We did get us some learning, but it was farming and laundering and sewing and cooking and minding babies.
Our other educating came during harvest season. The white men would stop by on their horses and look down on us. We’d have to lower our eyes. Make sure to call them “mister” and “suh.” When they took more than half of our crop, we asked our mamas and daddies why, and they popped us in the mouth. The white men paid our daddies far less than they’d ciphered, and we asked why again. Got popped again. That taught us to quit asking, but it ain’t stop us from speculating.
We came to know that the land we lived on, the crops we farmed, the house we lived in, wasn’t ours and never was. The white men who owned it—who used to own our grandparents and our mamas and daddies too—could tell us whatever they wanted and wasn’t nothing we could do. Couldn’t go over to the county courthouse for help like we heard of white folks doing. Not when the lawyer, the jury, the judge, was white men who had tenants like us, cheated tenants like us.
If we was to question our landlords or give them lip, they could tell us we had a debt and keep us forever owing so we’d be tethered to them, like in the old days. Or they could throw us off their land. Or they could give us a choice: if y’all is fool enough to think you can find better, you can leave this instant, cuz y’all is free now. And ain’t that what you all wanted?
THEN COME THE BOLL weevils, about three years back, and our men started to leave. And not just to the next county or town, like we been doing our whole lives, trading one farm for the other, giving up Campbellton for Madrid then Dothan. Reeder’s Mill for Clio then Headland. Our men took trains Up North for jobs with good pay, and we considered marrying just to follow them. Our grandparents ain’t understand, even when the white folks who owned the acres around us was going hungry. Y’all ain’t ’fraid, they said, of what you’ll find up there? And it wasn’t like we girls needed to fear lynching as much as men, who could get murdered for land (if they was lucky enough to own it) or for a wink or for nothing at all except being Colored.
The old timers started ruminating on their coming-up days, when white folks took care of you no matter what. You had a roof over your head, a new set of clothes every Christmas, and food to eat. You never lacked, because even if your master lost his fortune and had to sell you to survive, your new one had to provide.
If we could have talked back to our elders, we would have reminded them how they also used to say white folks could work you into the next world and get the insurance man to cover the loss. How you couldn’t learn to read or write or cipher without getting whupped with cowhide or losing a hand or worse. How your master could sell you or your children far downriver whenever he wanted. How you couldn’t just walk off to take your chances elsewhere, like our men did, even if you was scared of what you’d find.
The letters coming home from Up North said we could buy land without much hassle. Build homes with basements, brick, and mortar, not dirt floors and leaky roofs and newspaper on the walls. We could stay at home all day, baking blackberry pie for our husbands and children, living like those white families we listened to on the radio shows. We could have hands like the lily-white ladies in the Sears and Roebuck catalogue—dainty and soft and creamed at night. The only cotton we would touch would be our dresses and gloves and the babies’ diapers. Our husbands would come home Friday nights from a factory job in town, a whopping twenty dollars in their pockets. We would do a slow drag in the living room after supper, next to a brand-new Victrola. Then our husbands would swing our children onto their shoulders, pile us into their automobiles, and drive us to the picture show.
Our boys and girls both could go to school. They would learn to read, to spell more than the X we use to sign our names, write their own letters, maybe one day write the story of their lives. They would graduate from high school and pose dignified in those robes and square hats. Do work whose names we couldn’t pronounce, earn more in a month than we did any year, and ease the burden for their younger brothers and sisters. Make sure they wouldn’t be raised by strangers. Make sure they had food to eat, heat in the winter, fresh milk daily, ice throughout the summer, and electric lighting to pass the night reading.
Most of the old timers sucked their teeth at our dreams, even when our men sent money back home and we ate for the first time without having to work. Choosing to leave, the old timers said, was choosing to break up our families, like in the old days. And now this thing called the Spanish influenza is trying to kill us too. If we knew how it felt not to know our mamas and daddies or have them sold away, like they did, we would stay put, grateful that we was all together.
White folks, we would’ve said, can’t separate us no more, but they continued taking things away after we got our freedom. The government talked about giving us farmland and a mule to plow it, but we never got it. They gave our men the right to vote, only to grandfather them out of it. Then their so-called Jim Crow laws said we couldn’t share their sidewalks, their drinking fountains, their schools, their toilets. Even the dirt where they buried their loved ones—dogs and cats included.
But we was born after Emancipation. The first to be born citizens of these here United States. How do you explain to somebody born a slave what it’s like to be born free and yet not be free? What it’s like to want what you was promised and strive for more, even if it mean leaving your kinfolk and your friends and all you know behind?
When we asked the old timers to come North with us and some of them shook their heads no, we promised we’d send letters. But we vowed we wouldn’t return till Jim Crow was dead.
- What We Knew (The South, c. 1918) - December 26, 2021