"Finally, a southern novel that a black person can love, can believe. Crossing Blood signals the arrival of a major talent among American novelists. "
—Henry Louis Gates, Jr
Kincaid's fictional meditation on race relations in the Jim Crow South takes voice through its protagonist, a white teenage girl growing up in segregated Tallahassee.
Lucy Conyers lives with her brothers, mother, and stepfather in Tallahassee, in the last house in the white part of town, just before the pavement ends and the road turns to dirt. On the/b>
Kincaid's fictional meditation on race relations in the Jim Crow South takes voice through its protagonist, a white teenage girl growing up in segregated Tallahassee.
Lucy Conyers lives with her brothers, mother, and stepfather in Tallahassee, in the last house in the white part of town, just before the pavement ends and the road turns to dirt. On the other side of a patch of woods are Melvina Williams, the Conyers' maid, her drunken husband Old Alfonso, and a yard full of kids, mostly boysincluding Lucy's obsession, the wild and handsome Skippy.
This is the early 1960s and the battle over integration is brewing even in Lucy's own home. Her stepfather clings to segregationist ways, while her independent-minded mother believes in the cause of civil rights. Lucy understands that there are unspoken lines she is not to cross, but her curiosity leads her to trespass on the forbidden world next door. There, she learns the hard realities of love, race, and hatred.
The story, told convincingly and compellingly in the voice of its young narrator, examines the complex relationships between family members, men and women, blacks and whites. Crossing Blood is a novel of making promises and struggling to keep them, of unlikely bonds and forbidden ones, of love gone wrong and love everlasting.
"Finally, a southern novel that a black person can love, can believe. Crossing Blood signals the arrival of a major talent among American novelists. "
—Henry Louis Gates, Jr
We live about as close to French Town as you can get and still be a white person.
After my real daddy left, Mother married Walter and we moved out of the trailer park into a green house on California Street. Ours is the only green house. All the other houses are white and just alike. White crackerboxes, Walter calls them. Little houses on tiny lots with yards so small you can mow the whole thing in thirty minutes on a hot day with a push mower. That's what Walter says. Our house is set apart from the others, the last one on the paved part of California Street. The last house in the white section. We have a big yard and live right on the dividing line. Mother says she always did want to live in a real house. She tells us how lucky we are about twenty times a day.
Mother wouldn't marry Walter until after Benny was born and her stomach flattened back out and she could fit into regular clothes. Walter waited without complaining. Granddaddy said, "Your daddy run off because your mama is expecting again," but she told him to hush and not talk like that in front of us. At night me and Roy listened to Mother cry herself to sleep, and Roy said if he had a gun he would shoot our daddy dead for making Mother cry like that.
Once it was clear that our real daddy was gone for good, Walter, who lived in the blue trailer next door, got friendlier with Mother. In the evening when he came home from work he stood in the yardand talked to her while she took the clothes from the line. Sometimes he set up the water sprinkler in his front yard and said he didn't care if me and Roy played in it. He told Mother one day that she was the prettiest pregnant woman he'd ever seen. He said that in front of me and Roy and Granddaddy, which we hated, but we could tell Mother liked it. He even brought fried chicken home now and then, enough for all of us.
Next thing we knew, Mother was talking a lot about Mr. Walter and what a nice man he was. The next thing we knew, Granddaddy was saying Mother could do a lot worse than Walter Sheppard. The next thing we knew, Mr. Walter was eating supper with us almost every night.
Twice he loaded Roy and me in the back of his truckwe had on our pajamas. Mother laid a couple of blankets down in the truck bed and she popped a big paper sack full of popcorn. Walter drove us to the drive-in, paid our way, parked the truck backwards in a parking spot so we could see good, even hung the movie speaker on the side panel of the truck by us. Mother and Walter sat sideways in the truck cab talking more than watching. Mother was smiling a lot.
When Roy had to go to the bathroom, Walter got out of the truck and took him. It was Roy's first time to go in the men's bathroom. Until then he always went in the women's with Mother and me. You wouldn't think a thing like going in the men's bathroom could make a boy so happy. Walter and Roy came back bringing everybody an Eskimo Pie.
When Benny was finally born it was the middle of the night. It was Walter that drove Mother to the hospital. She was crying when he tried to help her get up into the truck. Granddaddy was crying too. That scared me and Roy, so we also cried. Granddaddy didn't even try to make us go back to bed. He let us stay up and eat cereal and play checkers with him until finally, almost morning, Walter called on the telephone and said Mother was fine. He said she had a big baby boy, more than nine pounds. Granddaddy said that was good news. He sat down and buried his face in his hands.
After Mother came home from the hospital with Benny she cried all the time, not even trying to save up her sadness for late at night like she'd been doing. It was an unnatural thing to see her lift up that round-headed baby and press him against her chest and cry her eyes out. And Benny was a good baby too, a quiet baby, who hardly cried at all, just slept or lay jerking his legs up and down, looking around at whatever there was. Mother picked him up one hundred times a day and kissed all over his bald head, which did not bother him but always made tears run down her face.
"Good Lord, woman, it's the baby supposed to crynot the mama," Granddaddy said. By the time a few weeks passed she was over being sad and Walter had asked her to marry him again.
On their wedding day Mother looked beautiful. She always was pretty to me and Roy, even when she said she was a mess. But this day she had on lots of lipstick, her black hair was curled, and she was wearing a blue dress, stockings, and high heels. She had on my dead grandmother's pearl necklace. Granddaddy whistled when she came walking out. Walter said she looked fine. But that wasn't the half of it.
Walter had on polished shoes. He tooted his horn as they drove off in the truck. Granddaddy said he hoped to goodness that Mother and Walter got back home before Benny woke up from his nap and needed fed. He winked at us. "This is really something," Granddaddy said. "First you get a dandy new brother and then you get a brand-new daddy, all inside a couple of months. What do you suppose is next?"
Me and Roy didn't know.
* * *
But moving to California Street was next.
Granddaddy went home to Alabama. Walter sold his trailer, put money down on this nice house, and we moved in hardly able to believe how lucky we were. Me and Roy hope our daddy finds out how well we're getting along without him. We wish he could see this house. People think Walter is Benny's daddy. We don't explain things to anybody.
Mother loves Walter for getting me and Roy and Benny out of that trailer park, where we didn't have friends to play with or a yard of our own. Walter said that trailer park was no kind of place for kids. It was too full of Yankees, old people who wait until one foot is in the grave, sell their houses and snow shovels, move to Florida and buy a trailer.
Walter says you can spot Yankees without even hearing them say some Yankee thing. You can spot them by their yards, which they don't care too much about. He says they hang out a sign on the front of their trailer that says "Hans and Frieda," and then they go inside and play cards the rest of their lives. They don't get into watering grass or growing flowers. They don't understand about sitting out on a porch rocking. Or about drinking iced tea under a shade tree. Or lying in a hammock with a flyswatter in your hand, thinking. Yankees don't have the knack for relaxing. That's obvious. Walter said that's why they played cards so much, like it was a job or something. Like somebody was paying them to play canasta by the hour. Like some jackass card game was something important. It got to Walter.
Besides old Yankees, we had university people in that trailer park too. Men as old as Walter who still called themselves students, and some who were professors. Walter said he didn't know if universities made people into oddballs, or if oddballs was all they'd let in. Walter swore not a one of those men had sense enough to be embarrassed over himself. "Grown men riding bicycles," he said. "Thirty years old or better, and still never done an honest day's work in their life. Don't have a thing to show for themselves but a bicycleI reckon their mamas bought that."
Walter says getting your own automobile is the first sign of manhood. He says you can't be a man without one. It irritated him to death on Saturdays when these pitiful excuses for men jingled by riding their bicycles to the library instead of washing their trucks and listening to the FSU football game. That trailer park wasn't natural.
Life is better here. Me and Roy have friends in the white houses on California StreetBubba, a fat boy Roy's age, who Walter says looks like a tire that needs the air let out, and his sister Karol, who is my age. Walter says Karol has worms, just because she has dark circles under her eyes. They have a pretty older sister named Patricia, who is in charge of them while their mother and daddy are at work. Bubba's daddywho is also Karol and Patricia's daddy, but people just call him Bubba's Daddy because they are like the before and after of the same person, both of them fat, sort of handsome, and brown-eyedis always telling stories. Everybody likes him because of that. But he can get mad too, and when he does, Bubba says, you better run for your life. Bubba says his daddy has whipped him with the buckle end of a belt before. But he is pretty nice to me and Roy. He has bought us cold drinks a million times.
Sometimes we play with Jimmy and Donald, two brothers who have a yard of good bushes for playing hide-and-seek and good grass for standing on our heads. Their old grandmother looks out the window all the time, her face pressed against the glass. Jimmy is Patricia's age and wants to be her boyfriend. Donald is Roy and Bubba's age. People feel sorry for Donald because he wears baggy shorts with an elastic waist and never puts on any underpants under there. Don't ask me why.
Sometimes when we are playing in their yard Jimmy gets the idea to sneak down to Patricia's house and peep in her window. We take turns climbing up on the trashcans so we can look inside and see her bopping wildly with the doorknob of her closet, listening to some sharp music on the radio. You ain't nothing but a hound dog. I go crazy over that song. Those seemed strange words for a song at first, but now I think it is the best song in the world. Like it is so good you can listen to it all day and not hear it enough. Patricia says Elvis sings it and the song is sharper than sharp.
Once we looked in Patricia's window and saw her in her half-slip. It was by accident. First she curled her eyelashes, holding a mirror in her hand. Then, out of the blue, she picked up a lipstick, smeared it on, and kissed the mirror. Kissed it. She made little kiss marks and looked them over real close, studying them. She was dead serious about it. Jimmy got mad and made us get down off the trashcans and stop looking. He swatted Donald to make the rest of us stop laughing at Patricia.
When kids come to our house and see Melvina's yard full of colored boys right next to us, they get nervous. "I'm glad I don't live next to niggers," Jimmy says.
"Me and Roy are glad we don't live in such a little tiny white house like yours with such a little tiny yard."
"If Melvina hears you talking about her boys," Roy says, "she'll whip you."
It wasn't true, but Jimmy and Bubba believed it.
Melvina's house was the first one after the pavement ran out and California Street turned into a dirt road winding up into French Town. She lived on the dividing line too, first house in colored town. She had one girl, Annie, and more boys than we could count. We mostly knew her boy Skippy, because he was the meanest one, but also his brothers Alfonso Junior and Orlando, and the babies, Leroy and Nappy. We weren't sure we ever even saw all Melvina's boys.
Mother tried to tell us Melvina was a pretty woman, but none of us could see it. She was big, with shoulders like a man. She was strong and could outwork anybody if she had to. She could keep up with Walter pushing wheelbarrows of sand or grass, and she could lift any heavy thing if Walter wasn't home to do it. We thought she was bossy and too big. Her hand could wrap clean around a co-cola bottle and touch fingers. She had too much oil on her hair and got carried away about any little thing.
On the day we moved to California Street, Melvina came walking down to our house and said to Mother, "I'm Melvina Williams, a good maid. Ask anybody on this street if you don't believe me." That started it. She's been cleaning house for us ever since. Now Mother says Melvina is the best maid in the world, and we have no cause to doubt it.
From the first minute she came walking into our house acting like she owned it, me and Roy have been trying to get Melvina to take us up to her house and let us go inside and look around. But she won't do it. Walter said to Melvina, "These kids are eat up with curiosity about niggers." He said he didn't know what Mother had done to cause it, but he didn't like it. It was clear Melvina didn't like it either.
Once we offered her six mayonnaise jars full of blackberries that it had taken us all morning to pick if she would just let us go up to her house for a little while. She thought it over that time but still said no. From that point on, me and Roy dedicated our lives to getting inside Melvina's house. We make it to the edge of her yard, her dogs start barking, and Melvina shoos us off. "Go back where you belong. No white children don't belong over here." So we leave, but not before glimpsing two or three dead rattlesnakes hung over a fence or a fat `possum tied to a tree limb waiting to be skinned for supper. "Stay away from here," she yells. "These boys will get you in trouble."
We believed that was the truth. It only made us want to go twice as much. Colored boys were even more mysterious than colored women and the off-limits houses they lived in. The more we wanted to see, the more against it Melvina got.
Granddaddy spanked Roy and me when he caught us on Melvina's porchnobody home. All we were doing was thinking over whether to sneak inside or not, but Granddaddy acts like thinking a thing is the same as doing it. "It'll never do to cross a colored woman about her house," Granddaddy said as he swatted our backsides. "She might allow dogs to sleep in the kitchen, but she is particular about people."
"But she knows us," Roy said.
"I've seen a colored woman that wouldn't allow her own husband in the house, made him wash up out in the yard at the hand pump, standing in his underwear, or even buck naked, trying to get himself cleaned up enough to go in his own wife's house. Some might say this is a man's world," Granddaddy said, "but the houses in it are women's houses. Isn't nobody more particular about her house than a colored woman."
"Why?" Roy and me wanted to know. That's all. Why? What is it about Melvina's little torn-up house that she never wants us to know? What?
Mother never said nigger. She wouldn't even say Negro because it came out "Nigra," which sounded too much like nigger. "The dictionary says a nigger is a lazy person. Any color person can be lazy," she said. "There's times everybody is a nigger. But nobody wants to be called one."
She didn't actually have to tell us not to say nigger, because somehow we automatically knew. When me and Roy said nigger this, nigger that, we sounded stupid and knew it. Some people can say nigger all day and not sound that dumb. They can sound normal. But not us. When I say nigger I feel like I am pulling my pants down and peeing in the yard with people watching. Roy says he says nigger anytime he feels like it but he don't feel like it much, which is a lie.
When Mother said for us not to say it, even though we hardly ever did, we said why not. Everybody else did. Walter and Granddaddy did. "Walter and Granddaddy are Walter and Granddaddy," Mother said. "They're grown and I'm not their mother."
She wasn't our real daddy's mother either. He used to say "Nigra," which got on Mother's nerves too. "Can't you just say `colored,' Johnny?"
"`Nigra' is the educated word, Sarah."
"Not the way you say it, it's not."
I pretend I have forgotten this conversationjust like I pretend I have forgotten all of their conversations I remember plain.
I told Mother that Annie and Skippy and them said nigger all the time. They always called themselves and each other niggers. And besides that they called me and Roy crackers. They said, "Y'all two some white crackers." Like soda crackers are white and square and plain. They called us that.
"Well, you're not in charge of what they call you. You're just in charge of what you call them," Mother said.
We tried not to call them anything. We just called them niggers when they called us crackers. But we called them niggers quietly, so they couldn't even hear us. "Y'all niggers, hush," we mumbled under our breath. Our lips wouldn't move saying it.
Roy said was it all right for him to call me a nigger, like when I ate something of his that he didn't say I could, or when I bossed him around. I said I called Roy a nigger that time at the picnic table when he threw a bowl of potato chips at me. Tried to hit me in the head with it. Could we just call each other niggers since we weren't colored and it didn't hurt our feelings that much?
Mother said no. She also didn't want us saying "shit" or "crap." Some words just aren't fit to use. If she heard Roy call me a fat nigger because I wrote on his face with a blue Magic Marker, she took off her bedroom slipper and swatted him, leaving a red mark that was still there at suppertime. The time I said, "Eeny meeny miney mo, catch a nigger ...," she came after me with the flyswatter, got me once, good, on the back of my leg.
This was because of Mother growing up out in Macon County, Alabama, where all there is is colored people. She says she didn't know there were any other white children in the world until she started school. All she ever did was play with Sudie's sister's children, James and Mae. Sudie worked for Grandmother a lot of years, so she and Granddaddy had got used to each other. After Grandmother died Sudie kept coming every day to cook and clean for Granddaddy. Now she is like our secondhand grandmother, almost. Mother loves Sudie. They tell a million stories. James and Mae this. James and Mae that. There's even pictures in Granddaddy's photo album of Mother, James, and MaeMother just brown as a berry, Indian brown with her shiny black ponytail, and her and Mae and James standing in a line, grinning, holding up a big string of fish they caught. They look like two black coffees and one with cream.
But I tell Mother just because James and Mae were decent back then, so what? Mother just doesn't know Skippy and Alfonso Junior like me and Roy do. We try to be nice to them, but they never try backexcept for Annie, since she's a girl.
Alfonso Junior is older than Skippy, at least he is bigger, taller. And he has a certain way about him like you'd have to wake him up to say hello. Like he is sleepwalking through those hot Tallahassee days. Like he wants to rest under a shade tree but nobody will leave him alone long enough. Like me and Roy and Mother aren't real. Like we are just cardboard people some fool drew up and cut out and set up next door to him. Just paper peoplelike every kind of nonsense paper thing when a person can't read. As nice as Mother is to him, he never even notices her being nice, because she is some paper doll, some white-people cut-up thing that he is too busy for. Like it is steady work, him looking for a good tree to sleep under.
It is Skippy that me and Roy pay our attention to. Him calling us soda crackers. Him always carrying on like we ought to be watching himevery minute. Like he would hate to do some little thing and us miss seeing it. Sometimes Skippy wears himself out getting us to watch him. Like once when he caught a snake he carried it way out of the way through our yard, within feet of us, slinging that thing. Being sure we saw he had it. Him and some yahoo snake strutting through our yard. And when we got interestedcuriousand came close by, he said, "Who called you over here? Who be telling you to come see this snake? I ain't said nothing about y'all come look at this snake."
And Skippy will pick up a snake as quick as he will a cat. He will let one crawl on his neck and down his arm, a black snake, until me and Roy go crazy watching him. More than once he let me and Roy hold one, which we did, but we had to practically quit breathing to do it. They are not slimy, though.
And then other times when a snake crawls up into the yard Skippy runs and gets the hoe to kill it. He would chop its head off if he could. Whack it until it is knotted and bent. It all depends. And we don't know if Skippy will do this or thator what? All we know is he will do something. So we watch. Then he says something like, "I didn't say I need no audience to get this snake kilt. Y'all getting paid to stand out here and look at me kill a snake?"
But what bothered me and Roy most was when Skippy and them went fishingon a school morning. On dewy, hot school days when me and Roy headed out the door and walked down California Street, to the Billups 66 station, and on across Tennessee Street to the bus stop. Us in our saddle oxfords, carrying our sack lunches. Our hair parted neat. Our teeth brushed. Roy without his boots and me in my stand-out-straight dress with the stiff crinoline under it. The grass would be wet and sometimes turtles were still in the road. And we were clomping off to school.
Then we'd see Skippy over at the ditch, right there by our house, digging for worms. Digging away, right in our faces practically. Getting an applesauce can full of fishing worms. Holding them up in front of his face like he had to study if the worms were good enough for catching fish. Like Skippy was very particular about the worms he fished with.
And then there was Alfonso Junior and Orlando and them. They got cane poles with strings wrapped around them and rusty hooks clamped onto the strings. Some brother in some size had him a jar of crickets. Melvina's wild boys, all just barefoot as the day is long. Not wearing shirts, most of them. Just raggedy shorts and bulletproof feet and their shiny skin and nappy hair with no part. They smiled their heads off.
It made me and Roy feel foolish, like we were the two sissiest things in Tallahassee. Skippy would say, "Look at them crackers be going to school." And we did not say one out-loud thing about him being a nigger and his brown brothers being some too. We acted like we didn't even hear Skippy. And he'd get real loud about he reckoned by the time we got home from school they'd have caught them a mess of catfish, because they had all day to do it. Catch a mess of fish for supper.
Me and Roy hated it, the way we felt like we were going off to church, all dressed up for some holy event that Skippy don't even believe in. So we pretend he is not real. Like we don't even see him at all. Like he is nothing whatsoever.
In the summertime when we played outdoors all day, that Florida sun trying to melt us down into little puddles the way it does a grape Popsicle when you can't eat it fast enough, trying to boil our inside juices so it was more steam than sweat that kept us damp and kept dirt and grass and gnats stuck to us, we'd get to thinking that shade, like under a big oak tree, was proof enough there was a God. And the second proof was those afternoon rains. You know, with thunder and lightning. Kind of a mad rain, like those drops are bullets being blasted from big thunder guns. And me and Roy would stand out in the yard and turn our faces up to the angry sky. We'd open our mouths to the rain and drink.
And if the ditches flooded, washing all the red clay down from the banks, making all the worms come out and swim for their lives, turning the road into a river, then me and Roy felt like rich kids with a swimming pool in our yard. We felt excited, like Walter had driven us all the way to the beach at Alligator Point to swim. It's just as good. Swimming in those red-water rain ditches. Getting cooled off and clean. Being baptizedborn againfor the hot night ahead.
Mother let us gallop around in the rain. Flop and slide and splash in the ditches, getting a hard pounding from the rain, like a good beating that leaves us forgiven. But Melvina didn't like it. She said bad weather is what people have houses for, and she was against us taking chances with lightningand messing up our clothes with red mud.
So when it started to rain, Melvina didn't allow her kids out in it, and Annie would grab up the little children and call the other brothers and hurry them in the houseall except Skippy, who would not go. Melvina let him be, because she had long ago quit expecting him to do right anyway. "Get in this house," Annie would yell, but Skippy wouldn't mind her. He would plant himself in a clear place in the yard, or in the middle of the road, and look up at the sky like he dared a stroke of lightning to try anything. With every crack of thunder he punched the air with his fists, doing a Joe Louis routine, putting on a show better than half the stuff on Ed Sullivan. "You ain't coming in this house with them wet clothes," Annie yelled. "Don't come around here soaking wet, saying, `Let me in.'"
Annie was older than me, but not on schedule with it every minute. She was scared of the dark, and the woods noise, and Skippy's snakes, and she was scared of lightning and I wasn't. I liked it. When it rained, me and Roy would beg her to come outside and swim with us in the ditches or slide down a grass slope on a big piece of cardboard. We hollered for her to watch us, then tried to show her some good example of the wonderful time we were having, like once we tried riding our bicycles in the flooded ditches like they were boats, and once we got a rope and took turns pulling each other down the slick mud hill in front of Melvina's house. And Skippy would get in it with us, whatever it was, and try his best to be the boss of it. If we made boats out of leaves and sticks, Skippy made bombs out of wet pine cones; if we went underwater and held our breath for a minute, he went under and held his for a minute and a half, disappearing until me and Roy think he is dead and we splash into the deep part of the ditch and pull him out, then he spits water and shakes his head like a wet dog and starts laughing. There is nothing we do that Skippy won't try to outdo. He gets right in it with us. But not Annie.
"Come on, Annie," I call. She is looking out the window. "Come outside. I promise no lightning will get you."
"You can't promise nothing for the rain," she hollered back. "You can't speak for the sky, fool."
Then Skippy laughed like I was stupid. If I saved his life I don't think it would matter. If I came into money and gave him halfit wouldn't matter. Nothing I could do would make that colored boy like me. Me, a straggly, yellow-haired, too skinny, big-toothed, scab-legged girl. Me, a wish-we-could-be-friends-'cause-you-run-through-the-rainlike-that girl. And Skippy acts like I am not worth the trouble it would take to spit on me. He has to look at me with his go-fishing eyes that say I am a fool in my stand-out crinoline dress. And he does it. All the time.
But I was not always going to be straggly and wish-I-could. That was the thing. Later on I would be a bright and shiny golden thing, like Mother said. After a few more summers in the Florida sun, that sun with a smiling face that is painted all over every Florida thingthat welcome-to-Florida smiling sunwould turn me golden like a slice of white bread that's been toasted and buttered. That's what Mother said. And Roy, Roy in the summer is so brown you don't know how brown he is until he gets buck naked and goes to get in the bathtub. And there is his white butt. You think you never saw white completely until you see Roy's butt. You didn't know he was so brown until you see how white his butt is. My butt is as white as Roy's, but it doesn't seem like it since the rest of me is not that brown.
In the summertime when we were little, when Mother was in the bathroom making sure we soaped up good, and washed under our arms and behind our ears, and washed the sweat necklaces from around our necks, she would call Roy her little chocolate drop. Chocolate Roy with his vanilla butt. She looked at the dirt that came off us in the tub water and said it was some of his sweet chocolate that got scrubbed off. She dried him off with a big towel and kissed all over his face, making smacking sounds, and said, "Mmmmm, so sweet I could eat you right up. You little chocolate drop." And Roy squirmed around acting like he wished she would quit that foolishness, stupid kissing and all.
And me, especially close up by Mother and Roy, me, Mother would call her golden girl. Her drying me off and saying, "That old Mr. Sunshine better look out, because right here is a little golden girl that's going to grow up and be shinier than the sun itself. Isn't that right, Lucy?" And I didn't act like Roy about it, like I wanted to get away from Mother's foolishness. No. I believed it. Every word.
Me, a golden thingand Skippy just still going to be colored. Me, shinyand him shining shoes or something. Him carrying my groceries. Him mowing my grass. Him holding the door open. I never did want it to get like that, Skippy turning into one them yes-ma'am, no-sir colored men. One those I'm-so-lazy-I-could-die colored men that sat out front of the Snack Shack gas station up there in French Town. It was not me that made up how things would be.
But it was going to happen like that someday, when I got those breasts Mother said I wanted and didn't know it. As soon as I got breasts then Skippy Williams could never look at me again, not out loud. Couldn't be calling his brothers to come over here and feel of my yellow hair. Feel how it looks like some that stringly stuff comes up on top of a fresh-picked corn ear. So if I was ever going to get him to like me I didn't have much time to do it in, because once I got goldenhe was still going to be colored.
It was just like Mother and James, back then with Mae. Them rubbing together in the saddle on Granddaddy's horse, and never any black came off on one or any white on the other. Them drinking out of the same tin cup and biting into the same juicy peach. And now Mother sees James, grown and married to Viola. She pats his arm and says, "Hey there, James. How you been treating yourself?" She just pats his arm like he was some one-hundred-year-old man and not that boy that shook a bloody squirrel knife in her face or chased her with a handful of slick fish eyes.
But when Mother sees Sudie she remembers everything. She loves on Sudie. Hugs her neck a bunch of times. Got some presents for her out in the car. Says to us, "Here is sweet, sweet Sudie. Y'all give Sudie some sugar." And we all hug her neck and love on her. But Mother can't be hugging James until he's so old he's about to die. And probably not then.
And it's the same with James. He can't be looking at Mother. James can't say, "Lord, Sarah, you looking good, girl." He can't say, "You some fine-looking woman, Sarah. I'll say that. Fine." Maybe he never did want to say such a thing. Maybe James wouldn't take money to say it. But it doesn't matter. It's not about what he thinks. It's about what he can say. He better not go say some fool thing that will make the world slam on brakes and sling everybody off. All of us. Him too. Nobody told me this. I was just born knowing it.
So I don't know why I bother with it. Skippy Williams. I just get this idea sometimes that I want him to like me. It's crazy and the idea goes away. Besides, I know that deep down Skippy has got to be a hotshot colored boy now, because later on me and Roy are going to be hotshot white people. He can't waste his chance.
I don't even know if Roy knows about these things. Once I tried to tell him how I was someday going to be a bright and shiny golden thing that Skippy never could look at. And he just said, "So what? Skippy don't want to look at you anyway. Shoot. Just because he's a nigger don't mean he's crazy."
I hate Roy.
I'm just beginning to understand the categories. Colored people have their categories the same as white people.
All whites have is white trash, which is poor people who are as bad off as colored people but don't have the good excuse for it that colored people have. So they are sorry in most everybody's eyes, never will amount to anything and don't even try to. You can recognize them when you see themtheir long-haired kids got pinkeye, blackened fingernails, and traces of food dried on their faces. And their run-down houses, car parts stacked in the yard, gray clothes hung on the line for days at a time until they look like weather-warped pieces of wood, and a pack of starved dogs sleeping in the bald sun. They always leave their front and back door hanging open so you can look inside and see them hunched in there sweating. A bunch of white trash are in prison, Mother says. A bunch of them work on Waiter's prison road crews. Seems like mostly they are skinny, but sometimes the women are real fat. You can recognize them in grocery stores especially, and they always have either torn-up cars or no cars at all. Usually they have something wrong with their teeth.
Then there is regular white people. Like us.
Then there is the rich white people, which is the kind everybody wishes they were. You can recognize them too. Nobody really likes them but everybody has to pretend they do. They talk a lot and never mean a thing they say. It's understood they're liars. But they're very polite about it. Sometimes they live in houses big enough for thirty or forty people to live in. The wives buy china and clothes and get their hair colored. Sometimes they fly up to New York and nobody thinks less of them for it. They have the most greedy, selfish children in the world. They make fun of the migrant children when they come to school dressed like they're about to be thrown in a trash pile. (Migrant kids know they are white trash, so they never speak a single word the whole two weeks they come to school.) The rich kids will not sit by them at lunch. They invite each other to birthday parties held at the swimming pools in their backyards. The rich daddies usually go into politics. They slowly get bald and fat and buy up everything for miles around. When the legislature is in session Tallahassee swarms with them. Mother says half of them have girlfriends put up at the Howard Johnson's.
So there's three main kinds of white people.
It seems like there are three main kinds of colored people too. There is colored, which is the best, and Negro which comes out Nigra, and then the nigger part, where Melvina's husband, Old Alfonso, just barely did fit before falling all the way off the bottom of the scale.
Melvina never was a nigger. She was always colored because of how decent she was. She worked without too much complaining or too much failing to show up. She went to church regularly, which was a good sign. She didn't fight too much, or get drunk, or run loose with men, or go to jail, or be sullen to white people for no good reason. Colored was for people who did things closest to the regular white way. And also, if a person's skin was sort of milky instead of pitch-black, then that helped too. But green eyes and such did not. Melvina was colored, all right. Anybody would say so.
But Old Alfonso, now. No. He didn't qualify. Never held any regular job, drunk up any money he got, went to jail on assorted occasions due to his niggerish ways. Probably carried a razor in his shoe or at least a knife in his pocket, because if niggerism was a club that would be the first rule for getting in. He would lie in a minute, probably steal anything he had sense enough to realize was worth something. Also went around dressed in some way to call attention to himself, like with a stocking on his head, or one of Melvina's kerchiefs tied crazy on there. He would always hide and not cooperate with any white people, like the sheriff when he comes to the house and Old Alfonso hides under the porch like that. Now that's niggerish. And beating up Melvina is too, and most everything he does is. Anybody thinks so. Even Melvina, maybe.
As for Negroes, all that is is the people that fall in between Melvina's goodness and Old Alfonso's sorriness. When anybody talks about a Negro it means somebody they don't know at all, never met him, just seen him or something. We never called Melvina and them Negroes because we knew them better than that. We were personal with them.
No one told me all this. I'm figuring it out myself. The part I'm not sure of is the children. If they have to be what their parents are or not. Like since Melvina is colored and Old Alfonso is a nigger, what does that make their kids? I'm almost certain Annie will grow up to be colored, but I'm not sure about any of those boys.
I know this. White trash is the very worst thing you can bebut nigger lover comes in second. Mother is devoted to us not being one and Walter is devoted to us not being the other.
Copyright © 1999 The University of Alabama Press. All rights reserved.
Nanci Kincaid is the author of two novels, Crossing Blood and Balls, and a short story collection, Pretending the Bed Is a Raft. Her short fiction has appeared in the New Stories from the South anthology, as well as such journals as Story, Ontario Review, Missouri Review, and Carolina Quarterly. A native of Tallahassee, Florida, Nanci Kincaid has lived in Virginia, Wyoming, Alabama, North Carolina, and Arizona.
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