Table of Contents
Poni’s Trail 20
Black Music 122
Top Story 191
Prelude to a Circle 208
On any plantation, dust is a thick fog that circles constantly like vultures, smoldering and smothering dreams from dark bodies. As far as the eye can see is a rolling sea of cotton that has been scorched from sitting beneath the storm clouds of dust, parted by roads that have yet to be touched by progress. Trees get naked in the summer time because southern heat can turn green to brown-a dingy brown that sullies shacks and shirts and shoes and overalls and dreams needing to be washed but all of the water is muddy. Heat monkeys dance daily, ritual style, escorting the hopes of ex-slaves down an alley of despair like used water leaving a bathtub. And all the while the crop-duster hum of Mississippi mosquitoes almost drowns the sounds of hearts breaking, one by one, like trees snapping twig-style under the pressure of hurricane winds. In sharecropping there is a phrase, “Going to weigh- up,” which means to take all of one’s harvest to the weigh-in area of the plantation, have it weighed, and to be paid according to the conditions set before hand or according to the present state of mind of the overseer. Robert McInnis and Elroy Williams are Negro men in the prime of their physical years. Each with fruitful families, the men work from dark to dark, pulling life out of the land fertilized with the souls of their fathers. Both men, victims and veterans of World War II, they killed on another land to live peacefully in their own. It is their registration card to their citizenship. And as the years begin to roll by, it weighs like falling anvils on their souls-their dissatisfaction with how little they have reaped from participating in the war, which was supposed to spread the butter of democracy across the globe. So, in terms of “weighing-up,” Rob and Elroy have received pennies on the dollar for their participation in the harvest of democracy, which should have been yielded by the field of war.
On Red Handcock’s Plantation, “Going to weigh-up” is a lottery of violence where no one wants the winning numbers. Ole Sonny Earl, the overseer, sits on the porch of the weigh-up area with several bottles of corn whiskey on his left and his pistol on his right. Beginning about noon, he finishes a bottle of whiskey during each individual “weigh-up.” A small, frail, almost brittle man, his hate has eaten away at him like his liquor has eroded his liver. His gun carries more weight than his character, as his corn whiskey supplements his lack of courage. As the whiskey consumes his body with a cancerous rage, his soul begins to flow the musing excrement of his hatred for the Negro. “Damn niggras want to get paid the white man’s money.” As the heat of the day swelters, the red in his flushed face rises like the mercury in a thermometer. He drinks a bit more, tobacco and whiskey mixing a toxic brew which perfumes his breath from the inner most depths of his intestinal abhorrence. Even as an illiterate, Ole Sonny Earl has mastered the skill of articulating white language. Every white word is weighted with the collateral of lead bullets and field rope. Talking to the men in the area, his words pour heavily on them like ejaculated vomit. “Dem’s my wages that I have to share with niggras.” Approaching the weigh-up area with their harvests, Ole Sonny Earl greets the men with rounds of fire at their feet or just over their heads, bullets whizzing by like bees and mosquitoes. The men jump, more of caution than fear. Ole Sonny Earl’s target practice is merely another artifact of the peculiar institution. It is an uncomfortable part of life, like a female’s menstruation. It does not stop life. The men just have to find creative ways to get around it.
Catching something out of the corner of his one good eye, Ole Sonny Earl, inhales and vomits more of his anger. “Hold it right there boy! What!?! You think you gon’ weigh some wet cotton and beat Mr. Handcock out of his money?!?” Another round of fire explodes in the men’s direction. “Leave that cotton there boy, and come back to weigh it when it’s dry.” The man hesitates. He knows that if he leaves his cotton, Ole Sonny Earl is going to have somebody take it and claim that he never brought any cotton to be weighed. “No sir, Mr. Earl, sir.” The man feeling his fear strangling him like sandpaper, trying to force his words back into his body. “I...I’ll just take...take it...so that it won’t be no bother to you or in anybody else’s way.” He bends over to pick up his sacks, and Ole Sonny Earl fires two rounds in his direction. “Damit boy, I said leave it there.” The man is hit in the arm and leg. Grazes on the flesh, but each mark strikes a bull’s-eye in the souls of the men standing around the area watching this human carnival of cotton and clowns. With every shot Ole Sonny Earl is a retarded artist, taking his knife and whittling their humanity from a fine block of oak wood to a toothpick, etching into the stone tables of their minds the permanent signature of second class citizenship. “Damit boy, ya bleeding all over the weights. Cal, you and some of the rest of you boys take him to the shed.” As the other men begin to move the wounded farmer, his son of fifteen attempts to move the sacks. With his head down, he hears the calculated, chilling clicking of a pistol being cocked. Silence falls around him like a heavy shadow as he tilts his head upward in the direction of Ole Sonny Earl. “Now boy, I ain’t gon’ tell you no mo’. You want to end up like your daddy there. Put dem sacks down. Mr. Handcock don’t go in for no cheatin’.” With his eyes fixed on Ole Sonny Earl, the young man tightens his grasp of the sacks. Furious at the young boy’s defiance, Ole Sonny Earl takes aim. “Li’l’ Willie!” yells the boy’s uncle, at the same time knocking the sacks away from the boy’s hands. Then putting himself between the boy and Ole Sonny Earl, the boy’s uncle speaks almost in rapid fire, “Sorry ‘bout dat Mr. Earl. De...de boy don’t hear so good sometimes. He didn’t mean no disrespect by it sir. He just slow to the point sometimes.” The boy’s uncle stands between Ole Sonny Earl and his nephew, expecting death, willing to take it for the life of the boy. Slowly, Ole Sonny Earl lowers his pistol, “Pete, ya good nigga.” Looking around at a stunned silent group of planters rooted in their spots, “How come the rest of you boys can’t be like Pete here?” Focusing back on the boy’s uncle, “Pete, I suggest you teach dat nephew of yours some manners, fo’ someone else have to. There’s a lot of boys ‘round here just waitin’ to introduce that boy to a tree. See, dey ain’t all as fo’givin’ as I am.” “Yessir. I kno’ sir. I thank you kindly sir.” Replies Pete. Then looking over his shoulder, Pete continues, “You boys gone and take Big Willy to the house. Li’l’ Willy, you gone go wit yo’ daddy.” Pete waits until the group is several paces up the road before he turns and heads to join them. In the time that it takes for a bent branch to swing back into place, it is business as usual at the weigh-up area.
As they head for home, Big Willy turns to Pete, “Thank ya fo’ what you did fo’ my boy. Sometimes he just don’t think.” “He must of got it from his daddy,” Pete replies. The men in the group chuckle. Li’l Willy, burning with anger smoldering in his bowels, “We shudda whipped his ass.” “Hush boy!” Big Willy replies. “Don’t be talkin’ no foolishness like dat.” “Well how we gon’ eat!?! He took all of our cotton.” Demands Li’l’ Willy. Pete responds, “We gon’ eat da same way we’s always eat. I was able to get most of my money before Ole Sonny Earl got too drunk.” “What about our money!?!” Li’l Willy snaps. “As long as you my brother’s child, dis is yo’ money.” Pete assures as he forces the money into Li’l Willy’s hands. (Story Continues)
Puberty is Robert Johnson standing at the crossroad of Highway 49 and Highway 61, two roads coming and going, one headed for overgrown cotton fields and the despair of dirt roads and one headed for brick towers and paved dreams. The Devil’s Hellhounds bark at Bibles being waved by a man in a crumpled paper-bag suit while rocking chairs move back and forth to the whistling wind of change. Mississippi roads are as complex as its politics as dirt roads become gravel roads become paved roads and back to gravel and back to dirt while hotels sit like scarecrows in the middle of cotton fields that refuse to be moved by the train of progress. Often there is one street with two names so that blacks and whites do not live in the same neighborhood; therefore, “cross the tracks” is the line drawn in the sand of civility and salvation.
Christopher swears that once he moves to Jackson permanently he will never go to church again. He has had enough of the Delta and of the fire and brimstone black Baptists to last him a lifetime. Christopher is a pretty good kid until the age of twelve. Then, like most budding blades, he sees the first hair between his legs and loses his mind. All boys go through this; it is just more severe when there’s no staminate blueprint available. And matron blueprints for male journeys are like state maps to city travelers. They can point you in an approximate direction, but they don’t know any of the avenues to muscularity. No man will ever admit this, but the first time a young boy is able to look his mother in the eye, a sudden thought flowers like an unwanted weed in the soil of his mind: “I think I can take mama.” Now, most of them-nearly all of them-will never be outright disrespectful to their mothers. But their reactions to their mothers’ demands become slower and slower. This is their rebellion, a statement of maturing independence. The longer it takes for them to act on a mother’s demand, the more that delay means, “You can’t really make me do anything. The only reason I’m doing this is because you are my mamma, and I love you. But don’t push it, ‘cause I’ll leave, and you can’t stop me.” Thus, it takes three or four demands to get the trash carried out or the yard cut.
Strangely, young boys do not wish to be disrespectful to their mothers. They just cannot help it. Daily, to Christopher’s ears, his mother’s voice begins to sound like a squeaking wheel, grinding against his last protruding and pounding nerve. When she opens her mouth, all he hears are fiberglass fingernails pulled across a chalkboard. And, it is always interrupting him at the most inopportune moments. The Saturday that he plans to sleep in, she wants him to clean the house. The moment he wants to play ball, she asks him about homework. He’s like a fish swimming against the current, and his mother is an unnecessary wave, pushing him backward. So, like any smart fish, he dives deeper beneath her radar, waiting until she leaves to sneak to the arcade, or hiding magazines inside his schoolbooks, or sweeping dirt under the sofa and rug. When boys commit these acts of rebellion, it is as if they are standing outside themselves watching themselves on somebody else’s television. Puberty is a tornado, and Christopher is a trailer park. It is that driving desire to be a man. It is like being given the keys to your favorite car, but you do not know how to drive. Instructions or not, nature will take its course, which means the engine will start whether or not he’s been to driving school. Parents can only hope to have done a good job of instilling in their children proper values and a clear road map. For the one eye of puberty is blind to values. Puberty is like the twilight zone for teenagers. It has its own rules about out growing childhood, and mind over matter is a thrown-away falsehood. Being a man is a philosophy. Being a male is a fact of biology. It is the most awkward time of life, where he is trying to complete a Rubik’s Cube in the dark. Both the mind and the body are expanding, looking for an identity, looking for new roads to navigate. Parents fight to keep down the glass ceiling and monitor the speed limit. One can only pray that the ceiling does not explode and cut anybody or that the car doesn’t mishandle a steep curve.
In puberty, Christopher is a wild flower. With divorced parents, his petals reach in all directions, easily mingling and getting entangled with uncultivated weeds. Ironically, Christopher likes having divorced parents. It means two of everything-two Christmas celebrations, two Thanksgivings, two birthdays. It also means less stability. Christopher’s first wet dream comes with a large side order of embarrassment, instead of a heaping helping of understanding. Like blood to sharks, the other kids know that this instability is an issue for Christopher. It is a trump card that they hold, ready and waiting to use during this Darwinian growth spurt. The Dozens, for instance, is another rite of passage during male gestation. Christopher has the quickest wit, but the other kids are always able to get him to break down by “snapping” on his absentee daddy. Right in the middle of Christopher’s good roll, one of the kids will interject, “At least I know where my daddy is. Yo’ daddy been gone so long they had him on America’s most wanted.” To this, Christopher replies, “Shut up. I do know where my daddy at. He in Jackson.” “Jackson?!?” one of the kids-maybe Bighead Bernard-responds, “Man that’s a whole city. Can’t you narrow that shit down to maybe a voting precinct?” The kids gleefully explode with laughter. Another kid-probably Skillet-chimes in, “Yeah, can you get us to a neighborhood instead of a congressional district?” By now the kids are doubled over and lying on the ground, eyes drowned with tears and throats and bellies filled with laughter. Christopher’s usually swift tongue slows to a snails pace, filling his mouth like it’s two sizes too large. The embarrassment of being the only one on the street whose father does not live there, reaches up and strangles his words, momentarily separating his brain from his voice box like an emotional tollbooth. The scalpel of the joke is not that Christopher doesn’t know where his father is. The sharpness of the quip’s dagger lies in the reality that he is the bastard oddball of the tribe. It cuts deep, rendering his larynx silent. We all have one thing that suffocates us. The “Daddy” joke is Christopher’s plastic bag. So, Christopher, with no verbal retort availing itself to him, options for a physical course of action. He punches the closest kid to him, and the rest of the kids respond by taking turns making a ghetto piñata of him. This scenario repeats itself throughout the school year and twice during summer days. Because of this, he spends a good bit of time between Jackson and Clarksdale, his mother hoping that it will save him some beatings and her from having to buy new school clothes.
Having to go to Jackson every summer and holiday break gives him a clear understanding of the differences of life in the Delta and life in Jackson. In Jackson, church, though still mandatory, is not the central focus of most people’s lives. Neither his father nor his father’s friends attend church regularly. In the Delta, Christopher does not know any grown folks who do not attend church-except for the heathens who attend the juke joint, but they are all going to hell. Of course, no one ever talks about the piano player who is able to pull double duty-Saturday night in the cafe’ and Sunday morning in the church. It seems that everyone else, except for the piano player, has a reservation for condemnation. However, Christopher believes that their hell of a good time is worth eternal damnation. The biggest difference is the overwhelming amount of activities to do in Jackson in comparison to Clarksdale. During the summers spent in Jackson, there is very little down time. Jackson has malls, several movie complexes, semi-pro ball teams, clubs, museums, cultural festivities, and the many events that take place at Onyx State University. To a kid coming from a community of twenty-two thousand, this is a mecca. Clarksdale has high school sports, church, and television. There is still the green bus that comes during the summer mornings to pick up kids who want to chop some cotton to earn some money. This bus and this summer activity creates a different type of young man than (Story Continues)
Blackburn Middle School is the picture of irony. It is a vessel of hope draped in an atmosphere of decay and dismay. The sun seems to shine only on it, burning a hole for air through the bleak clouds that hang over the rest of the area. Sitting on the corner of Pearl and Dalton, Blackburn, with its underpaid overworked staff, continuously produces flowers from concrete, seeds that reach from beneath the depths of Dante’s Inferno, hoping for one mere ray of sunshine to cause their budding into violets and roses. Natasha is one of those flowers. Every evening at three-thirty, she begins her long journey home through a path of broken bottles, beer cans, crack valves, pushers and prostitutes. Yet the rotten fish smell of the ghetto fails to perfume her essence. She is the budding cinnamon hope for this humanity of shrapnel. Today’s walk will be especially long. There is a pot of gold at the end of today’s journey, and her anticipation seems to add more steps to her walk. It is the day her mama gets paid. It is the day that she receives her monthly allowance of twenty-five dollars, give or take a couple, depending on the number of school days in the month. It is the day that she buys her escapism. Her mother gives her the money for lunch but allows Natasha to spend it on her heart’s desire. Yet, once gone, she will not receive any more money until the end of the month. It is her mother’s way of teaching her responsibility, the value of money, and the basic necessities of life. For Natasha, school lunch does not qualify as a basic necessity. Music and literature, these are the necessities of life. With them she can both please, ease, and expand her mind. She can know worlds that exist far beyond her Washington Addition neighborhood. Music and literature keep a young girl safe in her apartment, while the outside world spins inward on itself like a carnivorous black hole. Today is that day to expand and balance that world with some literary equilibrium.
In her new okra dress with pearl trimming that her mother made for her last week, her excitement is an electrical current running like a wild horse up and down her spine, and she can barely sit still in her sixth period class. Her dancing and darting eyes keep a constant watch on the stoic clock deadbolted to the wall which governs her freedom and hangs above the teacher like an omnipotent shadow, reaffirming the teacher’s authority. The second hand seems to be moving backward, and Natasha cannot take another minute. Math is her best subject. But when you have all A’s, what is your worst subject? Yet, there is no deep love in Natasha for school; it is just something to do, a tool to get to where she needs to be. At least this is how she reconciles herself to it. Her mother is a maid. Every night she shows Natasha the scabs, burns, and bruises on her hands, elbows, and knees. Every night she places Natasha’s soft, cotton hands in her hands that feel of gravel and slavery. “My hands used to feel soft like yours.” She tells Natasha, “But, I didn’t go to college.” Nightly, Natasha has to clean the house. It is a reminder of where she could end if she does not finish college. “These days, a college degree is like a high school diploma used to be. Now, you got to have a graduate degree to make your own schedule and paycheck. Time, baby, time is the greatest gift that you can give yourself. ‘Cause see, time is what you use to make money. If you ain’t got no degree, you ain’t got no time. When you don’t have a degree, your time is at other people’s disposal.” These words vibrate in Natasha’s head whenever her mother has to work twelve hour shifts or work on Thanksgiving and Christmas. Her mother works so much that holidays are merely copper earrings that have lost their luster. The only holiday left in Natasha’s life is the end of the month, “Allowance Day.” This is the day that she can feed the stomach of her mind, free the kite of her soul, and celebrate the flowers of her being.
In school Natasha narrowly escapes being an odd duck. In the ‘Dition, hope is a rare asset. Children who get good grades are displaying hope for a better life. But far too many of their peers have had the hope clawed out them like little molested virgins. Their minds have been impregnated with the seeds of self-aversion and self-quandary. By fourth grade, they are walking shells of children whom teachers pass along because, “They ain’t gon’ be nuthing noway.” But Natasha has an inner quality, self-esteem. Self-esteem is like air in a balloon, the more you have, the higher you will fly. Natasha hovers over the other fallen flowers like an angel at a funeral. She seems royally above the decay. Her mother has equipped her with inner peace, which comes from knowing that the only real fame is the love of God. The embodiment of brilliance, the other children admire her like morning violets opening to the sweet kisses of the sun. They admire her because she is a leader, not a follower. She is an outsider who has chosen to be an outsider. She will be voted most likely to succeed in high school. Her eyes seem set in stone on a larger prize than ghetto continuity. Yet, her gaze is not a look that goes through her classmates. Her mother did not raise an ant that works alone. It is a look that endears others to look with her. And even at this age, it is firm and unwavering.
Three o’clock. “Yes!” With only a word or two to her classmates, she meets Jamonica at the exit doors. Jamonica is a grade behind but a year in age ahead of Natasha. They live in the same direction and walk home together after school. But this is not why they are friends. Many wonder why Natasha and Jamonica are such close friends. Natasha does not go for any foolishness when it comes to school, boys, drugs, and fighting. Jamonica is just the opposite. She is rarely in school for an entire month. She is a regular arm bracelet of the drug boys and already has a baby. Ironically, Jamonica was a better student than Natasha. When they were in elementary together, Jamonica had the highest grades at Isabel Elementary. Now, that seems so long ago. All babies are cute, even black ones. But when they grow older, babies in the ‘Dition become just an extra mouth. By the time Jamonica arrives in middle school, she is just another mouth in a long line of mouths to feed. She used to come over to Natasha’s house and study with her. Now, at fifteen, Jamonica has four younger brothers and sisters and a baby of her own for which to care. Natasha’s and Jamonica’s mothers were close neighbors until Jamonica’s mother traded their friendship for back alley candy. Now the only time that Natasha and Jamonica spend together is their walks from school, which grow farther and farther apart with Jamonica’s frequent lapses from school.
As they reach their fork in the road, Natasha and Jamonica head their separate ways. Walking toward home and away from Jamonica, Natasha turns to take a last look at Jamonica. She sees Jamonica getting into a car with her latest boyfriend. This time she is with somebody younger. He is only nineteen. Jamonica’s overdeveloped body and her underdeveloped mind cause her to be pulled into an almost irreversible tornado of childhood, motherhood, welfarehood, addictionhood, criminalhood, and death, leaving her child to the same cycle. Feeling a momentary lapse of ice-cold pity, Natasha shrugs it off with the notion of staying focused. As she approaches her house, she notices that her mother is home early. “Glory be!” Natasha thinks and breaks into a full sprint, frantically unlocking the door. “Hey, mama!” Natasha explodes, excited and out of breath. Calmly, her mother replies, not turning around to see Natasha’s excited face from which she can feel the glow on her back, “Hey, Natasha.” Slowly, her mother turns and asks, “So, how was school?” “How was school!?!” Natasha thinks to herself. She cannot believe that her mother is wasting such precious minutes with such unnecessary chit-chat. School was as it always is, a chore, nothing more. Struggling to stay calm, “It was fine mama.” Hesitating, but pushing forward, “So, you home early, huh? Does...that...mean...that...you...have...something...to...do?” Still calm, “No, baby. What would give you that impression?” Natasha, thinking to herself, “Okay mama, stop trippin’. You know what today is.” Holding her excitement, Natasha speaks, “I was just wondering, if you didn’t have anything to do and if you paid all of the bills, could we go on down to the record store and then to the book store before they close.” Her mother, slowly turning away from Natasha and back toward the kitchen, enjoying this little game, “Well, I guess we can...But first, how are your grades?” Becoming slightly irritated, Natasha thinks to herself, “More stupid questions. My grades are like they have been for the past seven years, excellent.” Her mother interjects, “What’s that Natasha?” Worried, Natasha thinks to herself, “Was I talking out loud?” Frantically, she searches her mind for the appropriate words, “My grades are fine mama. I have all A’s. Remember, you went to the PTA meeting just last week.” With a stone look, her mother responds, “Don’t get smart with me child.” Natasha’s heart stops in mid-beat. Then a cat-like grin from ear to ear covers her mother’s face, “Come on chile, fo’ you burst.” As they gather their things and head out the door, her mother asks, “So, what book you buying today?” Proudly, Natasha responds, “This year I’ve read Their Eyes Were Watching God and A Raison in the Sun. I think I’m going to buy Jubilee.” “Oh, that’s a fine book, baby,” the mother replies. “Mama,” Natasha starts curiously, “How come you won’t let me buy For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf.” “I just do not think that you are ready for that one, yet,” the mother responds. “But you’ve already talked to me about sex,” Natasha adds. “I’ve talked to you about sex, not sexuality,” the mother adds. “What’s the difference?” Natasha inquires. “About ten years,” the mother quips, and they get into the car and head to the stores. (Story Continues)