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Shreveport, Louisiana, 1952
"Come on in hea, Em'rald," I heard someone call. But, surely, they couldn't be calling me; I hadn't been called that name since I was a child. There was no way I was back home: I'd not left the West Coast recently.
However, looking around, I could see that I was indeed in Shreveport, Louisiana, and I was-yes, I truly was-a girl again. I figured I must have been dreaming. Then again, perhaps my life was flashing before my eyes. I'd heard of such a phenomenon. Either way, I figured you should write this all down; it might come in handy one day,
Normally, I followed my aunt Rebecca's voice only for it to end with a rebuking. "Those Devil eyes," she would say to me ... for no good reason. "The doorway to a Devil heart, I bet," she would go on. She was a jealous woman. Of course, I could have no way of knowing at that point in my life exactly why Aunt Rebecca harbored so much resentment for me. But it was jealousy. Was my white skin and my straight black hair really enough to draw out so much hatred? Or maybe she was just angry. It was an angry time, and this had been an angry year for colored people. The world around us was changing, and none of us was too sure it was for the better.
Aunt Rebecca's daughter Josie was as black as night, her hair tight and drawn up. I often would hear her screaming echoing through the house. Screams coming as that close-toothed comb was being ripped through the tight nap. Every other Sunday, Josie's ears would be black on the tips from the hot comb's burns.
Somehow, I felt guilty for her pain. I wanted to fix it, save her from it all, but there was no way.
Today I followed my aunt Rebecca's bellow into the small room where my mother lay in bed. I was used to seeing her there, but today was different. Today she looked different. I had a feeling deep in my gut that this time my mother wouldn't be getting up again.
"Emerald." My mother smiled at me while saying all the syllables of my name. She was the only one who did. She then touched my face, letting her thin hand linger there against my cheek as if once again comparing her dark skin tone to my lighter one, or maybe remembering my father's skin next to hers. Who could say? My mother, she was so secretive ... so deep. I allowed her this moment, though. It never mattered to me how many differences there were between us. She was my mother, and I loved her.
For an uneducated woman, my mother knew more than many scholars I've met along my life's travels since she and I parted. She had common sense, which made her wiser than most people I've known. I could only hope I picked up on some of it.
"Emerald, Doc Waters says I need to be getting my matters in order," my mother said.
Her voice sounded light and airy. All of the normal heaviness that was usually there was gone. It was as if her spirit was already on its way out-as if all the burdens she'd held inside were gone. It was as if she was only hanging on to life by the grace of God, who had granted her just these few more moments with me. My eyes burned with that thought.
"Your matters? Does that mean me?" I asked innocently. She nodded. "Mama, I'm in order," I told her, trying to keep some kind of confidence in my voice, hoping to ease her fears about what would happen to her only child, left alone to fend for herself in this jungle of hatred and prejudice. I also thought that maybe by letting her know she didn't need to waste any time on me, she could use her last few moments to talk about something she enjoyed more.
Aside from seeing death this close up, I knew little else about life and the world around me. I had had to quit school a few months back to help care for my mother. I didn't have many friends. It was mostly members of our church who came around, and they were so filled with preconceived ideas about my life and me that I usually avoided saying too much to them. I had such a desire to learn, to take in everything around me. I knew there had to be more out there than just death and despair. Sometimes the curiosity ached in my bones.
"Girl, you ain't in no kinda order." My mother chuckled.
I laid my head on her leg while she stroked my hair. It felt good when she did that.
"Now look here. I know you ain't had much of a life here seeing after me. You ain't even been able to go through school a few months back the right way, and that's too bad. And with the way things are ..." She was hinting about my looks, as usual. "Well, I don't expect any of these nice boys around here gone wanna have too much ta do wit cha...." she finished, with a loud humph escaping her curled lips. "Them gossiping heffas at the church done seen about ruining that for ya, calling you all them names," she fussed.
I cringed, remembering all the hateful names I'd been called by my own people. Half-Breed, Cat Eyes, Trick Baby, Witch, and some words too painful to bring to mind. I patted her leg now, calming her down before she started cussing or something even worse. She and I both knew it was all just lies what they said....
"It's okay, Mama. I know I'm not from the Devil," I told her, letting her know that I was fully aware of the names I was called. Of course, I didn't understand a lot of what the words meant, but I knew they were hateful. My mother looked at me for a long time before stroking my long, thick tresses, running my hair through her slender fingers again.
"No, you're not. You are my angel child. And despite how you got here, don't you ever think any less of yourself than that. I've always felt inside that the way you look would be a cursing for you," she said. "Or a blessing ... It's alls in hows so eva ya uses it," she added. I nodded.
It was true. My white skin and green eyes had left me an outcast within the society in which I was born-a society where both the blacks around me and the whites around us expected me to think, feel, talk, and look a certain way. I didn't fit in, and I really didn't know what to do about it.
"Well, baby. You ain't cursed ... not altogether," she began to explain. "But your chances of making it in this place, getting anywhere, are slim to none. But I done made a way for it to be all right for you," she said, sitting up a little in the bed now, pulling her gown tight around her thin body. "You gone haveta leave hea'," she said.
My heart nearly stopped. I could not ... well, I refused to ... understand what she was saying. Leave there? And go where?
As she spoke, she got clearer and clearer in her meaning. Despite her love, she, too, had seen me as a punishment for sin-a cursing. Like Aunt Rebecca, she felt that the best thing for me would be to go away-and never be seen again.
"Miss Greta wants you. That white woman has been a good friend to me. She's even seen that I've had my medicines and thangs. And seeing that you got some learning ... at least it comes easy to ya, she's always wanted you. They're packin' up and moving to St. Louis. And she say ..." My mother's voice began losing its volume-taken by sickness or possibly sadness and growing regret over the hand she had dealt for me. She cleared her throat as if noticing the loss of conviction in her own words. "And, Emerald, it's best," she said, after explaining the basics of the arrangement she had made with Greta Griffith. A heavy sigh left her hollow chest.
Though I tried to understand her words, the pain stabbed deep. The hurt became nearly unbearable, though I hid it well. I had been sold to the highest bidder, it seemed, and was being shipped out-just like the boys who were leaving to fight a war they didn't even understand. But, to tell the truth, at that moment I would have rather gone to battle in Korea than the jungle I was headed to, in my mind. I was being sent to live among the whites. What could be worse? If I had known that becoming educated was merely a grooming to become a commodity, used and traded like a slave, I'd have stayed ignorant-and happy. My mother had no idea what her words were going to do to me, my heart, and the one person other than herself who I had allowed to enter my world.
My reasoning was bitter, as bitter as the taste that was coming up in my mouth while I tried to form the words, civil words, to change this decision that my mother seemed determined to make. "Mama, everybody is gonna still see that I'm different. Being around white folks won't change me. It won't make me white. They will see the difference." I tried to explain to her, to dispute her talk of this fantasy life she envisioned me having. The one she just knew I could have away from Shreveport, living with the Griffiths, living among white people.
"Not white people ... they won't see nothin'. They don't ever see past beauty-past the skin. You move among 'em, and they won't be able to tell a thang," she said flatly. "They don't look that close. They's surface people," she explained plainly.
Every time she explained how I was to leave and why, I was more stunned and amazed at the workings of her mind ... her thoughts. Who had convinced my mother of this lie? Who had convinced my mother that my life would be better this way? I could not believe a woman as intelligent as she had thought of this craziness on her own.
What had possessed her to make this kind of deal with my life? That I, Emerald Jackson, born of two Negro parents-although one, being of Creole descent, had passed on genes that left me looking like this-should have to give up my race, my background, and become white? Why should I have to do this to survive? Why would I have to pretend to be white? Was that truly what she was telling me to do?
"That's what I'm sayin'," my mother said after I asked her in simple terms if that was her request. "If you gone look like a duck, walk like a duck, quack like a duck, be a duck then," she said in one of the most profound statements I'd ever heard her make. "They're coming to get you this coming Saturday. You're gonna live with them in St. Louis," my mother finally said. I looked for sadness or even regret in her words now but found none. She truly, in her heart, felt she was doing the right thing. How I wished I was older. How I wished I had the dogmatic way of my aunt, where I could just say what was on my mind and in a way that everyone would listen to. I had dreams ... I had plans, and none of them included what my mother was suggesting to me.
I wanted to learn new things, and maybe I had once or twice even fantasized about leaving Shreveport, but never under these circumstances. I had wanted to go away, like on a trip, the way some of the people in town did. I wanted maybe to go away in glory as part of the civil rights movement I'd been hearing about. So many Negros were rising up ... getting fired up about being black. I wanted to be just as fired up. But for me, it just didn't seem the same. For me, my leaving had no pride. For me, it was as if I were a sold piece of furniture, and it was a sure guarantee that I would never be back.
"This will keep us together. Your father always told me that whoever is wearing it is in the heart of the giver of it," she said, before giving me a light shove, moving me away from her bed. "You're always in my heart, Emerald." She was crying and so was I.
"Come on, gal, don't make this harder than it needs to be," Aunt Rebecca interjected, taking me by my shoulders. I wanted to jerk away, but her grip was tight, as if she'd anticipated it. When she shut the door behind me, I just had to brace up and accept that this would probably be the last time I saw them.
When I left that house on an unseasonably cool summer morning, I never guessed what was at the end of that rainbow for me. But, with a kiss and a prayer, I was about to find out. Dressed in a gingham cotton dress, with bare legs, and a pair of my mother's church shoes, long abandoned after she took to her bed, I was on my way. Bag in hand, I started trudging the five miles down the dirt road to the Griffiths' store. In the part of town where I lived, very few colored people owned cars. I guess, I was not important enough for the Griffiths to come pick me up.
Greta Griffith was a schoolteacher, and her husband, Melvin, ran the local market. He was a big man, with a thick beard and heavy laugh, soft blue eyes, and always, always, very clean hands. Nonetheless, I was filled with apprehension while, reluctantly, I walked toward town.
"Where you off to, wit cho bags ...? You runnin' off?" my best friend asked as he joined me on the road. Noah Sampson had been my friend since before I knew right from left. He'd been my confidant and maybe even more.
Noah was blessed. His skin was as dark as a crow. His eyes were large and playful, his smile wide and full of joy, and so were his words. He was always cheerful and positive about life and his future. He would speak about leaving Shreveport and going west, as if it was more than just a dream for him, and I loved to hear him talk about it. Aunt Rebecca said Noah was raised by a fool and, therefore, could only speak the words of one, but I knew Noah meant what he said, and although I never admitted it, I often dreamed of leaving Shreveport with him.
Maybe I even loved him a little bit. Truthfully, I knew I loved him a lot, with all my heart, or at least as much as a young girl of fourteen could love a boy. He was older ... sixteen, and I can't say he felt the same way about me ... but I wanted to believe he did.
He'd come from his house, no doubt spying me from afar. I couldn't look at him. A heavy sigh left my mouth instead of words when he jumped in front of me, blocking me from walking any farther. I'm sure a tear slipped out, too, as he, as if suddenly enlightened and without asking anything more, took my bag from my hand and slowly and silently joined me in my journey.
Reaching the fields, we stopped for a while to talk. I knew Noah could tell my legs were not up to this journey, and maybe because of the way my feet turned in, he could tell the shoes were not a comfortable fit as well. I had a while before the Griffiths would miss me, and so I kicked them off and rubbed my aching feet.
"I had a bad feeling it would come to this," he said, handing me a cool pop, bought from the machine we'd passed on our way out of town. I was sure he had spent his last to get it for me, so I freely offered to share it with him. It was a little early in the day to be drinking pop, anyway. He grinned and took a swig before giving it back. Noah didn't go to school; he worked with his father in the fields. It was physical work and far too laborious for a young boy; however, it was the life Noah knew and the reality he lived. Maybe that was why he had such wonderful dreams. I, on the other hand, had gone to school every day and had learned under the watchful eye of Mrs. Griffith until leaving school. Even after, she still always had a lesson for me to do when she visited my mother. Had I known she was secretly grooming me to be her daughter, I would have acted much dumber.
Much of my education I had shared with Noah, teaching him to read and write. Yes, I'd say Noah was more than just my best friend; I had a vested interest in him. "I don't want to go, Noah," I finally said, my words heavy in my mouth, my tongue thick and clumsy. Noah looked around and then put his arm around my shoulder, kissing my cheek quickly.
We sat down low in the cornfield so that no one could see us. It wasn't as if we'd done anything improper, but still, being discreet was always the way with us ... fear was always the way with us. You never knew when someone would come along and blame you for something you didn't do.
"You gone be fine," he said, sounding wise and older than his years.
"I'm not ... I'm not," I pleaded, the tears flowing like water now. Noah then kissed my lips to silence me. It was my first kiss and, surely, the most perfect kiss that heaven had ever allowed-salty sweet and full of only the purest of love.
When my eyes opened, they met his, and as if we thought as one, we knew what had to happen next.
Excerpted from COLORED SUMMER by MICHELLE McGRIFF Copyright © 2007 by Michelle McGriff. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted April 21, 2010
This book was very interesting and kept me wanting more. Being the very imaginative person that I am, I was able to see the scenes playing out as though I was right there in the midst of the action. The author took her time and gave specific details to help set the scene, like it was a panoramic view instead of just a snap shot or tunnel vision. Throughly enjoyed the book and I would recommend it for anyone who is just looking for something different to read. Why not go on a journey and take a trip by experiencing a "Colored Summer"Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 10, 2009
I won this book last year but just got around to reading it. The cover alone kept it on my shelf but now that I've read it, wow, wish I hadn't waited so long. Emma has such a great life. I was able to really escape into her world while reading about her adventures. The book wasn't graphic either. I've read two of her books and I think I'm a fan of writer - McGriff - now. I'm going to get some more of her books to read.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 19, 2007
Colored Summer is a fast-paced novel about the struggles of a black woman, Emerald, whose deathly ill mother arranges for her to pass for white. Emerald goes along to please her dying mother, but she spends many years afterward trying to get home and reclaim her racial identity. Something always gets in the way. The author has wonderful storytelling abilities, but unfortunately she included some details that knocked me out of Emerald's world. Early in the story we are told that Emerald's daughter-in-law is a little jumpy because she is going through menopause. A few paragraphs down it is mentioned that said daughter-in-law is only 41 years old. It is highly unusual for a woman this young to be menopausal. No explanation was provided, nor was any reference made to an 'early' menopause, which does happen but is not the norm. Later in the story it is said that Emerald loved the rock-n-roll song 'Shake, Rattle, and Roll.' The year was 1952. That struck me as awfully early for the advent of rock and roll, and when I checked, Big Joe Turner didn't even write the song until 1954, which is roughly the year popular music shifted to rock-n-roll. Then, one of Emerald's protectors is said to have 'finally' bought a color TV set in 1955. The color set had been developed in 1953, but the great majority of TV shows in 1955 were filmed in black-and-white ''I Love Lucy,' 'The Honeymooners,' 'Gunsmoke,' 'Nat King Cole Show'', and few people had color sets. Those sales didn't begin to rise until the early 60s, when westerns like 'Bonanza' and 'The Virginian' were filmed in color for that very reason - to get people to buy all those color sets. Most Americans bought color TVs in the 60s, many in the later part of the decade. But in 1955 it was a rarity. There were very few, if any, shows to watch in color. Finally, we are asked to believe that a person could drive for two days and then find they've gone the wrong direction after noticing scenery that looks more like the West than the South. What's more, when Emerald makes this discovery she is in a city that is midway through the large state she's in, a city with a high elevation due to its being in the middle of a mountain range. She'd gone from desolate flat terrain with tumbleweed to an elevation of 5,000 - 6,000 feet and didn't notice? Even if this was before the Interstate Highways were completed, didn't those signs on Route 66 indicate which direction the road went? Would the border between the two states not be marked with a welcome sign? Of course it would have been. It was a little insulting to be asked to swallow this. At this point I gave up and merely skimmed over the remaining pages because I wanted to see how the story ended. Michelle McGriff has the potential to become a top-notch author, but as of now she's still learning. I hope her next novel is better researched. And shame on the editor who didn't point out the incorrectness and implausability of these details to her.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 25, 2007
Another great read from Michelle McGriff, July 25, 2007 By R. Bridges 'blackbooks4less' (Reston, VA United States) - See all my reviews Thank you Michelle McGriff for another wonderful read. This time the theme is `passing'. Although not by her choice, Emma, who could pass, was given to a white couple to be raised as their own child. It was a wrong choice by a dying Mother thinking it would be best for her child. Emma's life is tragic, her secret, that she is not white, clouds and affects the choices she makes. The fear of being found out is a constant threat in her life. Emma's journey from home, escaping trouble time and again, brings her into contact with quite memorable characters. Emma's life, written by the very talented Michelle McGriff is one you will not soon forget. The story just has everything, good storyline, great characters, (Molly is quite an original), and a pace, that engages you from the very beginning and you only wish there had been more. Many believe race relations have not really changed so much from the time this book is set, which is in the 1950's. I want everyone to read Colored Summer and talk about `passing', about the practice of keeping secrets, hiding who we really are. You see, Michelle's stories do that, get you thinking and talking and that is why I say again, thank you Michelle McGriff for writing another thought-provoking enjoyable novel, Colored Summer.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 2, 2007
'Colored Summer' by Michelle McGriff took me surprise. I didn't actually expect the deep race issue in the story line, but it worked out well. She told a good story of a young woman coming up in the mid 50's who had to deal with the very real issue of race and being able to find herself at the same time. She did very well with using the the events of the current time in her novel. Thanks MichelleWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.