The Darkest Child: A Novel

The Darkest Child: A Novel

4.5 254
by Delores Phillips
     
 

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Rozelle Quinn is so fair-skinned that she can pass for white. Her ten children are mostly light, too. They constitute the only world she rules and controls. Her power over them is all she has in an otherwise cruel and uncaring universe.

Rozelle favors her light-skinned kids, but Tangy Mae, 13, her darkest-complected child, is the brightest. She desperately… See more details below

Overview

Rozelle Quinn is so fair-skinned that she can pass for white. Her ten children are mostly light, too. They constitute the only world she rules and controls. Her power over them is all she has in an otherwise cruel and uncaring universe.

Rozelle favors her light-skinned kids, but Tangy Mae, 13, her darkest-complected child, is the brightest. She desperately wants to continue with her education. Her mother, however, has other plans. Rozelle wants her daughter to work cleaning houses for whites, like she does, and accompany her to the “Farmhouse,” where Rozelle earns extra money bedding men. Tangy Mae, she’s decided, is of age.

This is the story from an era when life’s possibilities for an African-American were unimaginably different.


From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
For readers who like their novels king-sized, filled with grand plot events and clearly identifiable villains and victims, Delores Phillips's debut novel, The Darkest Child, will not disappoint. This story of an African-American mother and her large family is loaded with killings, maimings and other sensational turns. — Lee Martin
Publishers Weekly
Phillips's searing debut reveals the poverty, injustices and cruelties that one black family suffers-some of this at the hands of its matriarch-in a 1958 backwater Georgia town. Thirteen-year-old Tangy Mae Quinn loves her mother, Rozelle, but knows there's "something wrong" with her-which, as it soon becomes clear, is an extreme understatement. As the novel opens, Rozelle is getting ready to give birth to her 10th child (by a 10th father) and thinking about forcing the obedient Tangy Mae, who longs to stay in school, to take over her housecleaning job. Using a large cast of powerfully drawn characters, Phillips captures life in a town that serves as a microcosm of a world on the brink of change. There's Junior, the perpetual optimist, who wants to teach people to read and write so they can understand the injustices of Jim Crow laws and the Ku Klux Klan; Hambone, a here today/gone tomorrow rabble-rouser whose anger against white men and their laws inflames those around him; and Miss Pearl, the only true friend to the Quinn family. At the dark heart of the story is Rozelle, the beautiful mixed-race head of the Quinn family whose erratic mood swings, heart-wrenching cruelty and deep emotional distress leave an indelible mark on all her children. Through all the violence and hardship breathes the remarkable spirit of Tangy Mae, who is wise beyond her years; forced to do unspeakable things by her mother and discriminated against by the town's whites, she manages to survive and to rescue a younger sister from the same fate. (Jan.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Set in Georgia in 1958, this riveting debut features an abusive single mother of nine who quits her job as a domestic and sends her 16-year-old daughter-"her darkest child"-to work in her stead. (LJ 10/1/03) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A grim tale, set in the dying days of segregation, about one young woman's struggle to escape her past, her mother, and her duties. Phillips writes vividly and certainly creates memorable characters-most of them, however, remembered for their nastiness, there being an absence of redeeming features. The blacks who live in Pakersfield, Georgia, are almost as nasty as the whites, who are all racist, vicious hypocrites. Both races father illegitimate children, and while the older blacks fear confrontation, the younger want to act immediately. The story, told by Tangy Mae, begins as her mother Rozelle gives birth to her tenth child, Judy. All the children have different fathers, Tangy Mae the darkest, while Rozelle herself is the product of a white man who raped her mother. Rozelle, who takes center stage, is a monster whose treatment of her children reads like a charge sheet. Which is the novel's fundamental weakness: Rozelle is beyond awful, disowned even by her mother, but the author offers no explanation for her cruelty. And as Tangy Mae, a bright student, struggles to stay in school, keep Rozelle happy, and care for her siblings, she records the horrors her mother inflicts on her children. She insists that all the money they earn, including that of her two grown up sons Sam and Harvey, be given to her; she forces daughters Tara and Mushy to work at a local whorehouse, and she beats them, burns them with cigarettes, insists they shoplift , and denies them proper education. While Rozelle becomes even more out of control, a young black activist is hanged, and Sam and his angry cohorts burn down white stores, with inevitable repercussions. The most lethal damage, though, is till to come atthe hands of Rozelle. Good intentions, but overwrought.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781569477496
Publisher:
Soho Press, Incorporated
Publication date:
01/01/2005
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
462
Sales rank:
64,146
File size:
1 MB

Read an Excerpt

The darkest child


By DELORES PHILLIPS

SOHO

Copyright © 2004 Delores Phillips
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1-56947-345-5


Chapter One

PAKERSFIELD, GEORGIA 1958

Mama washed the last dish she ever intended to wash. I alone witnessed the event, in silence. It was on a Friday-a school day-but instead of sitting in a classroom, I was standing in unfamiliar surroundings, the home of my mother's employers, stunned by the wealth around me. As I regarded my mother through unwavering peripheral vision, something in her glances at me seemed to say, "Tangy Mae, this will be your life. Grab an apron and enjoy it."

Domestic servitude was not what I desired for myself, but she had only to speak and I would do anything she asked. It was my obligation to obey her though I did not want to be like my older brothers, Harvey and Sam, who seemed to breathe at our mother's command. They were men, and their lack of initiative disturbed me, although I knew they could not just leave our mother's house. Departure required consideration of consequences and a carefully planned escape.

At the age of thirty-five, our mother was tall and slender with a head of thick reddish-brown hair. Her face, with its cream-colored skin and high cheekbones beneath dark gray eyes, was set off by a gleaming white smile accented by dimples. I thought she was beautiful, despite my acquaintance with the demon that hibernated beneath her elegant surface.

She had worked seven years cleaning house for the Munford family. Now she stood at their kitchen sink holding a dish under running water longer than necessary before handing it to me to wipe. She finally dried her hands on her apron, took a seat at the table, and waited for her pain to subside. She had spent most of the day complaining of her misery while instructing me on the proper way to make a bed, scrub a floor, polish silverware, use a washing machine, and on and on.

According to Mama, her pain-something like gas-had begun during the wee hours of the morning. It balled up in her chest, rolled through her stomach, between her thighs, and into her knees. It did a slow dribble in her swollen ankles, then just like that-her finger snapped-it bounced back to her chest and started all over again, taking her breath away.

On the table, beneath a crystal saltshaker, was an envelope. She picked it up and fanned it before her face. "Fifteen dollars" she said indignantly. "I don't care what I do 'round here, it's always the same fifteen dollars. Never mind that I stayed late on Tuesday evening when Mister Frederick's mother came for dinner. Never mind that I walked to the Colonial for flour that Miss Arlisa forgot to pick up. Week in, week out, always the same fifteen dollars."

She removed the bills and tucked them inside the pocket of her dress, then slid the envelope and a pencil across the table. "Sit down" she said, "I want you to write me a note to Miss Arlisa."

My obedience, as always, was swift.

"Dear Miss Arlisa," Mama started as soon as I was seated across from her. "Tangy Mae can do just as good a job as I can. She is my child and I learned her good. She can start work for you on Monday. I will be dead"'

My hand trembled slightly, but I wrote the note exactly as she dictated. She snatched the envelope from the table, scanned the words, then passed it back to me. "Sign it, Rozelle Quinn," she said. "Miss Arlisa probably won't even know who that is. All they know 'round here is Rosie. Rosie do this and Rosie do that."

I sat there dumbfounded. Loss traveled through my body, pulsed at my temples, and numbed my fingertips. I wanted to wail, to one-up her moans, believing my pain to be more severe than anything she could be feeling.

"You got something you wanna say?" she asked.

"No, ma'am," I answered, forcing myself to look at her. There was plenty I wanted to say. Words were choking me. I covered my mouth with my hand so that Mama could not hear the words that might seep out. Mama, you promised Mr. Pace that you would let me go to school one more year. You promised me the ninth grade. You promised! Mr. Pace thinks I'm smart. Please, Mama, let me go to school!

But I had nothing with which to bargain and I knew it. Already I had attended school longer than any of my siblings. I was in ninth grade, which in itself was miraculous, considering I had never set foot in an eighth-grade classroom. Academically, I surpassed my peers, but at home I was a complete failure. At the age of twelve, my mother's children were expected to drop out of school, get a job, and help support the family. I fell short of expectations.

"We gotta get on home" Mama said. "Put me a bit of coffee and sugar in some wax paper. And, Tangy Mae, don't make it noticeable."

"Yes, ma'am," I said, and thought how calm my mother appeared for a woman who planned to be dead come Monday morning.

Holding onto the table with one hand and supporting her back with the other, she heaved herself to her feet, then removed her apron and hung it in the broom closet. She checked the house one last time to make sure everything was in order, retrieved yesterday's newspaper from a basket beside the trash bin, then ushered me out by way of the back door.

The bitter cold January afternoon seemed to freeze my mother's face into a mask of disdain. "They done seen the last of me," she grumbled. "They don't give a damn if I freeze to death. They don't care nothing 'bout me, and I don't care nothing 'bout them."

I knew she was talking to herself, so I walked along beside her, keeping my mouth and my coat tightly closed. Sometimes Mama would come home from work and talk about the Munfords for hours. Miss Arlisa, she opined, was a fat, lazy white woman who had no idea how to keep house or satisfy a man. Mr. Frederick was a show-off, who drove his automobile around town, honking the horn, and bragging about everything he possessed, including his ugly wife.

I had seen them only once, the time they brought Mama home with a load of old clothes they had given her. The only things I knew about the Munfords were that they owned the hardware store in town and that Mrs. Munford was not nearly as ugly as Mama had described her. She was not nearly as pretty as Mama, either.

"I been watching you," Mama said, as we walked along the paved street that led out of East Grove and toward the Cherokee Creek Bridge that would take us into Stump Town. "You think them Munfords is rich white folk, don't you? Well, they ain't rich. If you wanna see rich, you gotta go up there on Meadow Hill. That's where the really classy white folks live. They got mansions up there that take from morning to night to clean, and that's wit' five and six people working. These East Grove whites bow down to them on Meadow Hill, and you better believe it."

I had long been familiar with the Pakersfield hierarchy which ranked Meadow Hill supreme. Everybody bowed to somebody, but, all in all, Pakersfield was a decent place to live. The Negroes had Stump Town, the flats, and Plymouth, while the whites had Meadow Hill, East Grove, and North Ridge. There was never any trouble as long as everybody stayed where they belonged. We usually did.

Miss Janie Jay's house was the first house on the Stump Town side of Cherokee Creek. Mama didn't care much for Miss Janie, claimed she was highfalutin and put on airs, so it surprised me when she strolled through the gate and up to Miss Janie's porch. I hesitated for only a second before following.

"Knock on that door and tell Janie I'm dying out here and I'd be much obliged for a drank of water," Mama said.

Miss Janie taught Sunday school and sang in the choir at the Solid Rock Baptist Church. She was old, probably about sixty or so. She wore her hair parted down the center with a thick gray plait on each side. On Sundays she covered the plaits with one of her many fancy hats, and when the spirit moved her, she would wave one hand in the air and hold tight to the hat with her other hand.

"Tangy Quinn," she said, opening the door and staring out at me. "Shouldn't you be at school?"

"Mama's real sick, Miss Janie," I said. "She's out here on your porch and wants to know if you can spare her a drink of water"

"I'm dying, Janie," Mama groaned. She had positioned herself on Miss Janie's porch swing, slumped over, with her head resting between the chains, looking as if she might die at any second.

"Rosie, what is it?" Miss Janie showed alarm at the sight of Mama. "Just hold on, honey. I'll get you some water."

While Miss Janie went for water, I kept a close watch on my mother. Her eyes were closed and her arms rested against her abdomen with one hand clutching the newspaper. She moaned, shook her head as if disapproving of the sound, then moaned again. She did that several times, changing the pitch and depth of each moan, before it dawned on me that she was rehearsing her suffering, exaggerating her misery.

By the time Miss Janie returned, Mama was trembling all over, tears streaked her cheeks, and her hair was loose and tangled about her head. She was in such a state that it took me and Miss Janie both to get her into an upright position. Miss Janie held the glass and Mama took a few sips of water before slumping over again.

"Rosie, maybe you need something hot," Miss Janie suggested. "I can get you some tea."

"No, Janie. I'm going home to my children," Mama whispered. "This is a terrible way to die, but I need to be wit' my children. There's things I need to tell 'em before it's too late."

Miss Janie's eyes brimmed with tears. "Oh, Rosie, I'm so sorry," she said. "Just remember, Jesus saves. Put your trust in Jesus"

Miss Janie tried to get Mama to come inside to warm herself, and offered to call the doctor, but Mama refused. Miss Janie helped her to her feet and walked us out to the gate, saying we should pray, that God answers prayer.

Mama held tightly to my arm and used my shoulder to support her weight as we made our way slowly up Oglesbee Street. My knees were so cold that I knew if one touched the other I was going to fall to the ground, taking my dying mother with me. As we turned the corner onto Chestnut Street, Mama loosened her grip on my arm. She straightened her back, smoothed and pinned her hair in place, then smiled and winked at me.

Painfully, I parted my frost-chapped lips and returned a smile. I loved her with all my heart, but if she did not die by Monday morning, I was determined to discover from the pages of my schoolbooks, how to break the chains that bound me to my mother.

Chapter Two

Our house stood alone on a hill off Penyon Road, about half a mile outside the city limits. It was old, crippled, and diseased-an emblem of poverty and neglect. Nature had tried to cure it by embracing the rear frame with herbs, roots, and a jumble of foliage which spilled over from the surrounding woodland. Nature had failed, and in frustration she sought to destroy the house by eroding the very foundation on which it stood.

Erosion had left the house slanted at an odd angle, held up on the east side by thick, round poles lodged into tilted, unstable earth. Occasionally, huge chunks of brown earth shook loose, skirted around the poles, and rolled down the slope into a waiting gully.

All of my life home had been these three drafty rooms under the same rusted tin roof. The house swayed in the wind but stood. It absorbed its fall of rainwater and stood. It groaned under the weight of celebrations and sorrows and did not crumble. But for how much longer? I thought we might wake up one morning-or not wake up-in the rocky, muddy gully below. Or maybe we would simply blow across the dirt road and get lost in the overgrown field of weeds. I could not predict what would happen, but I feared we were destined for disaster.

Mama stood at the foot of thirteen sagging, rickety steps that led up to a wide, shaky porch. All pretense was over. She was gasping for breath as she placed one foot on the first step and began, gingerly, to climb. She had almost reached the top when her knees buckled. My arms shot out instinctively, ready to break her fall.

"Tara! Tarabelle!" I screamed.

"Be quiet!" Mama snapped, regaining her balance and resuming her climb. "Ain't no need to wake the dead."

The front door, which was as much cardboard as plywood, swung open and my sister, Tarabelle, appeared on the porch. "What is it?" she asked irritably. "Why you calling me like that?"

"Mama's sick," I answered breathlessly, my heart pounding in my chest.

Tarabelle was sixteen and almost as tall as Mama. She had long, jet black hair, a copper-colored complexion, and the cold, black eyes of a dead poker player. I had never seen the eyes of a dead person-in fact, I had never seen a poker game but-I had heard that poker faces were expressionless, and I knew that dead people showed no emotion. That was Tarabelle. She stepped back, regarded our mother with those cold black eyes. Her mouth twitched as if she might smile, but I knew better.

"She ain't sick," Tarabelle said, still staring at Mama. "She 'bout ready to have that baby. That's all."

I had been ignorant in my innocence but I was wiser than my sister because I had learned to study Mama as diligently as I studied my books. I watched our mother as she squeezed the collar of her coat. I heard her sharp intake of breath. I saw frustration and pain leap from the core of her soul and surge the length of her arm, down to the delicate hand that struck my sister's face.

The blow sent Tarabelle reeling back. She bounced off the porch wall and landed less than an inch from the drop that would have taken her down into the gully. She lay there, those cold, black eyes boring into the equally cold, gray eyes of our mother.

"I'm dying" Mama said with calm finality.

Tarabelle gripped the splintered boards at the edge of the porch and nodded her head. "Yes, ma'am."

Edna Pearl and Laura Gail, who were only four and five, stood in the doorway, staring in fascinated fright. I watched as Edna stole back into the shadowy gloom pierced intermittently by daylight filtering in through cracks in the walls. It was our only source of illumination until dusk, when we were allowed to light the kerosene lamps. I knew Edna had gone to alert Martha Jean to our mother's presence.

My next eldest sibling, Martha Jean, was a defective replica of our mother. She could not hear and had never spoken one coherent sentence in her life. There but by the grace of God went I, for only eleven months separated her silent beauty from my articulate homeliness. My imagination ran rampant when I thought of our births. I would fantasize Martha Jean stubbornly refusing to leave our mother's womb until I was conceived. We would blend together, and my thick nose would become thin; my coarse, tangled hair would become silky and straight, and I would have deep dimples in my cheeks. And, in turn, Martha Jean would be able to hear and speak.

Continues...


Excerpted from The darkest child by DELORES PHILLIPS Copyright © 2004 by Delores Phillips. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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