The Washington Post
Freshwater Roadby Denise Nicholas
From award-winning actress Denise Nicholas: a ten-year anniversary reissue of her powerful and dramatic coming of age story set in Mississippi during the Freedom Summer of 1964. Freshwater Road has been called one of the best novels written about the Civil Rights Movement. Nicholas herself has been praised repeatedly over the years for her beautiful/i>
From award-winning actress Denise Nicholas: a ten-year anniversary reissue of her powerful and dramatic coming of age story set in Mississippi during the Freedom Summer of 1964. Freshwater Road has been called one of the best novels written about the Civil Rights Movement. Nicholas herself has been praised repeatedly over the years for her beautiful prose and is continually mentioned along with Alice Walker and Ernest J. Gaines as the most important novelists documenting this era.
When University of Michigan sophomore Celeste Tyree travels to Mississippi to volunteer her efforts in Freedom Summer, she's assigned to help register voters in the small town of Pineyville, a place best known for a notorious lynching that occurred only a few years earlier. As the long, hot summer unfolds, Celeste befriends several members of the community, but there are also those who are threatened by her and the change that her presence in the South represents. Finding inner strength as she helps lift the veil of oppression and learns valuable lessons about race, social change, and violence, Celeste prepares her adult students for their showdown with the county registrar. All the while, she struggles with loneliness, a worried father in Detroit, and her burgeoning feelings for Ed Jolivette, a young man also in Mississippi for the summer.
By summer's end, Celeste learns there are no easy answers to the questions that preoccupy her—about violence and nonviolence, about race, identity, and color, and about the strength of love and family bonds. In Freshwater Road, Denise Nicholas has created an unforgettable story that—more than ten years after first appearing in print—continues to be one of the most cherished works of Civil Rights fiction.
The Washington Post
"Surely the best work of fiction about the civil rights movement since Ernest J. Gaines's The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman." The Washington Post
"Breathtaking. . . Perhaps the best work of fiction ever done about the civil rights movement." Newsday (New York)
"What a wonderful surprise Denise Nicholas's first novel is. Her textured characters unfold against the background of an historic encounter that was destined to change America forever." Sidney Poitier
"Hypnotic. . . [Nicholas] conjures an insidious mood of fear and writes with lyrical prose." Entertainment Weekly
"Tensions both physical and psychic inform Freshwater Road by Denise Nicholas, which may well be the finest novel about the civil-rights era. . . . Perhaps Nicholas’s experience as an actress is what endowed her writing with its deep understanding of plot and character. Whatever the source of her talents, in my reading experience, few books have so artfully entwined a coming-of-age saga with the awakening of moral conscience." Samuel G. Freedman, The Daily Beast
"In Freshwater Road, Denise Nicholas brings alive all the colors and emotions of the civil rights movement during the perilous adventure that was Freedom Summer." Janet Fitch, White Oleander
"Sometimes gorgeous, sometimes terrifying, this novel marks the debut of a talented writer." Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"Vividly depicts the cost of activism. . . Nicholas has a genuine way with words, a keen grasp of visual and emotional metaphor, and the novel illuminates the internal consequences of institutionalized racism and the often suppressed connections between South and North." Chicago Tribune
"With spare, powerful sentences that quietly sneak up on you, Nicholas smoothly transports us to the not-so-distant past for a reflection of the civil rights movement's subtle triumphs." Essence
"Extraordinary. . . Impassioned prose, full-blooded characters, and rich feeling." PAGES
"A lovely and arresting novel about class and race in the South." Time Out Chicago
"Offers a sensitive and absorbing story of a young woman coming of age emotionally and racially." Vanessa Bush, Booklist
"A finely realized and written novel." Detroit Free Press
"Accomplished. . . . Nicholas appears poised to have an equally successful second career as a novelist." Chicago Reader
"Vivid, intricate, and powerful; a book that will make you squirm with discomfort and dread, breathe with relief, then gasp with outrage. The characters in this book are so real and the events of that Mississippi summer are so well described that i almost felt like I was reading a history book instead of a novel. Pick up a copy of this incredible book. If you ask me what one novel to read this winter, Freshwater Road gets my vote." Terri Schlichenmeyer, syndicated columnist
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Read an Excerpt
Out of Memphis with night drawing up thick to the windows, Celeste felt the air pressing down. She'd dressed in a gabardine jumper and a long-sleeved blouse against the lingering cool of a June Ann Arbor morning. Now, her clothes weighed on her like a damp blanket. She closed her eyes. Before sunset, the trees had segued to a double-dyed richness of color and the loamy soil had turned blood-rust. Soft-talking voices of the train passengers mutated from the flat singsong of the Midwest to the sloping drawls of the deep South. She shuddered, remembering a life she'd never lived, then laughed at the irony. Every Negro in America had a nightmare of Mississippi, of dying in the clutches of a hatred so deep it spoke in tongues.
The conductor, a tall square-jawed dark-skinned man, his upper body leaning into the car as if primed to run in the other direction, called out, "Senatobia." He clanged the metal door closed. Earlier, he'd walked the aisle swaying with the train, announcing the names of towns, his resonant voice a clarion call to freedom. He nodded to her quiet self, scrunched in her corner, a map of the Southern states spread on the seat next to her. The mimeographed sheets from One Man, One Vote blared out in bold type, "How to Stay Alive in Mississippi." He knew why she was on this train.
She peered through the dirty window when he poked his head into the car and called out, "Sardis." Not a soul on the platform. They barely stopped. The train lurched forward, slow-waddling south.
Sardis. Senatobia. Idyllic names. She checked her map.
"Grenada." What's he saying? An island paradise in the Caribbean with long, sun-drenched beaches and fountains splashing cool water on lush flowers? A quick glance to her. Why does he duck his head in and out like he's hiding in a closet? His eyes are like black marbles in the murky train light.
Saliva had pooled in the corner of her mouth by the time he called out, "Vaughan." At the soft edge of sleep, Celeste dreamed of Negroes darting their ghostly selves like wild children playing hide-and-go-seek. The conductor peeked from behind a tree. She forgot completely where she was going and why. When he called out "Canton," her stomach growled in yearning for Chinese food at one of Shuck's stops in Detroit. Egg foo yung, shrimp in oyster sauce, sweet and sour pork. Shuck's diamond pinkie ring sparkled against his brown skin in the neon light as he held the white carry-out bags away from his camel hair coat.
In the foggy back hollow of her surface doze, a new voice calls out, "Jack-son, Miss'sippi." Miss Sippi lives down the street. She longs to sleep past her ticketed stop, but can't escape the appalling pictures of hunted people scattering behind her eyes. "Jack-son." When the train braked with a low howl and a long screech, she woke fully, gagging on the oily aftertaste of a Memphis ham sandwich, remembering Momma Bessie's warning that pork dreams were always nightmares.
By the time The City of New Orleans Limited rolled into the Jackson station, Celeste had been slouching upright on a worn-down seat for more than twelve hours. Counting the night trip from Ann Arbor to Chicago and the hard wait at the station there, it was closer to twenty-four. No sign of that conductor. Maybe he'd never been there at all. She hoisted her green canvas book bag onto her shoulder by the strap, wrestled her suitcase from behind the last row of seats, and stepped down to the platform. She took off toward the lobby, her suitcase banging her side, her book bag bouncing against her back.
When a rich, low voice called out, "Suh, lemme git dat fa ya, suh." Then, "Ma'am, I got dat, ma'am," Celeste turned to see a Negro porter bowing, grinning, and grabbing suitcases in one fluid intonation of the past. The porter caught her gape-mouthed stare, rolled his eyes, then flashed his pearly whites at the white passengers and continued his work. Ah, she thought, this was the real deal. Mississippi had to be the birthplace of the grovel, handmaiden to the blues, the crown jewel in the system of slavery, the kick-down place.
Celeste walked faster, her thighs chafing in the swollen heat, blessing her gym shoes with every step she took. She whizzed by lacquer-haired women wearing outdated sundresses and cigar chomping men. Out of the corners of their eyes came slices of stares, sharp as razor blades, which seemed to say, "I know why you're here, and you better go on home where you belong." The cigar smoke irritated her nose. At the end of her train, the dark well of soot-covered tracks disappeared into a pitch-black tunnel. She hurried on.
Under the yellowish glare of bare fluorescent tubes, just off the central waiting lobby of the station, Celeste came face-to-face with the first Whites Only sign she had ever seen in her life. She stared at the sign tacked to the ladies' room door, its letters hand-printed and uneven. She needed to go to the bathroom. A blush warmed her ears and acids grumbled her stomach. She surveyed the nearly deserted lobby, the stragglers from her train passing through to the street and a few bag-toting travelers loitering about, smoking. No signs pointing the way to the Negro restrooms. Anger tightened her jaws. The pressure in her bladder grew. It had been a long time since the rest stop in Memphis. Just then, another Negro woman, colorful scarf over a head of rollers, suitcase and bags beating her body, pushed herself, back first, into the ladies' room as if that sign were not there. Celeste followed her in, afraid to turn around to see if anyone noticed.
The woman moved fast, shoving her things under a washbowl and then ducking into a stall. Celeste did the same. Squatted over the dirty toilet, panties down, she imagined being grabbed by the ankles from under the door. Her mind snapped to the television news film she'd seen of young people, Negro and white, yanked off buses and beaten until blood flowed down their faces. Whites Only signs flashed like backdrops to a bloodletting. Two minutes off the train and here she was already breaking the law. Her imagination ran on full. But this was real. Her father, Shuck, used to say she had good book sense and not too much of the other. She heard the woman flush and exit the stall. She took deep breaths, pulled the flush chain, and came out into the glass-hard light of the bathroom.
Celeste eyed the ladies' room door, anxious to wash her hands and be on her way. "Is it okay to be in here?" She and the hair-rolled woman were co-conspirators. There was comfort in the assumed comradeship. At least she wasn't alone. They were in the Whites Only bathroom, had already used it. She had a story to tell, and she hadn't even gotten to the One Man, One Vote office.
The woman glanced at her sideways, digging in one of her bags, standing in front of the scum-pocked mirror. "Okay by who?" Her round eyes protruded slightly just above full cinnamon-brown cheeks. "Where you from?" Her head lurched back then settled as she worked on herself, her bag heaving up a comb and brush, toothpaste, a box of powder, a frayed puff, lipstick, rouge.
"Detroit." Negro people from the South favored the city of Detroit, that mystical blue-collar heaven of jobs. Shuck and Momma Bessie both did a lot of fussing about Negroes still coming up from the deep South searching for jobs that no longer existed, running the city services down the drain simply by the press of their numbers and needs. Celeste plunged soap containers along the line of washbowls. They were all empty. Still, she rejoiced at rolling up her long sleeves to the elbows and getting that fabric off her damp skin.
"Detroit, uh?" The woman smiled a knowing smile, as if honoring Celeste with a good check mark. "Chile, nobody pays that sign no mind no more. Course now, white ladies stopped coming in here." She indicated the overflowing trash receptacle, the dirty mirror and basins. "The law says we can come in here, it don't say they have to come in here." She squinted in the mirror.
Celeste took it in, trying to grasp the logic. "Where do they go?" She saw long corridors of bathrooms with color-coded signs, some white, some Negro, some integrated, and some unmarked. Wrong door, bad news. Maybe they gave their old ladies' rooms to Negroes and built spanking brand-new ones for themselves, left the signs up to confuse everyone. How long could they do that?
"I don't give a damn where they go." The woman applied her makeup as she talked, manicured nails glowing fuchsia. Then her deft hands quickly removed hair rollers. She brushed her hair, then applied rouge and powder to her face. "Those signs were down 'til the white folks got word about this Freedom Summer thing." She glanced at Celeste with a suspicious narrowing of her eyes, then coughed. She took a plug of toothpaste on her finger, rubbed it on her teeth, bent to get a swig of water from the faucet, gargled, then spat the residue in the bowl.
Celeste, remembering the instruction from One Man, One Vote about announcing to strangers her reasons for being in the South, rinsed her hands under the warm water, splashed some on her face, and volunteered nothing. No way to know who might run straight to the local police, the Klan, or some other enemy. Too late she discovered the paper towel dispenser was empty, too. "You from Jackson?"
"Mound Bayou." The woman paused. "Ever hear of it?"
"No." Celeste stood there dripping.
"It's a all-colored town, north of here. Bolivar County. Ain't nothin' up there but a post office and a lot of mud. But it's ours."
Wouldn't be long before Detroit was an all-colored town, too, if you listened to Shuck and Momma Bessie. Shuck always had a story about some white business or another moving to the suburbs. Still, she thought, she might like to go to Mound Bayou, see it for herself. She'd never realized how Negro Detroit was until she arrived in nearly all-white Ann Arbor. She'd missed Detroit in her bones that first semester and ran home every weekend until she met J.D. That ended the trips home; Shuck didn't take to her dating a white guy, and he let her know it in no uncertain terms.
"You can't stay in Mound Bayou too long. Sure to lose your mind." The woman laughed. "Somebody like you, from way up there in Detroit and all, you sure to God would forfeit your mind."
The woman made Detroit sound like it was all the way to Hudson Bay, Canada.
Celeste chuckled and got a good look at her own tired face in the mirror.
"They got other ones. Different places in the South." The woman packed her things, took off her flats and slipped on pink pumps, shoved the flats into one of her bags. "Don't want to miss my train. Going to New Orleans for a few days. Get out of Miss'sippi for a minute. Catch my breath." She headed for the door, high heels clicking on the dirty tile floor. "Always wanted to go to Detroit. Get me one of them jobs at Ford's Motor Car Company."
Celeste might have told her that those jobs were now as rare as gold nuggets in a well-panned stream. She took one last glance at her sallow, travel-weary face in the mirror. Her shoulder length hair had risen to its peak of fullness and become a frizzled helmet of curls, waves, and flyaway strands. Her gray-green eyes had receded under heavy dark brows, sunk in pits of fatigue. Her lips needed color. She needed color. Whatever makeup she'd had on when she began her journey lived now on the small train pillow she'd left on her seat. She grabbed her suitcase and book bag and followed the woman to the door. Didn't want to be in that Whites Only ladies' room alone, whether anybody paid the sign any attention or not. It was still up there.
The woman bumped half way out then turned back, her face primed and ready. "What's your name, girl?"
"I'm Mary Evans. Pleased to meet you. You ever been in Miss'sippi before?" She had a dubious look on her face as she appraised Celeste.
"No. First time. First time in the South." Even in her fatigue, Celeste's face pressed forward with expectation and fear.
"Well, let me tell you something. You be careful, girl, you hear. Miss'sippi ain't nothin' to play with." She lowered her voice for the last of it, eyes doing a fast flit around the lobby. "You have a nice stay, now, you hear?"
"Thank you." Celeste angled out the door checking for any hard-eyed men in uniform with billy clubs, cattle prods, snarling dogs. "Have a good time in New Orleans."
"Sure to do that. It's a good-time place." The woman sang the words as she fast-walked away, her pink pumps gleaming in the dingy, yellow-lit station.
Celeste figured the woman had guessed why she was there by the way she'd looked at her, sizing her up. But she'd said nothing. Knew better than to venture into that conversation. She checked again for enemies in uniform then bounded across the emptying lobby, through the double glass doors into the dank air of a June Mississippi night.
A sparse parade of cars moved slowly up and down the street. In her rising confusion, she considered trying to hitch a ride. How far could it be? Not here. Across the way were closed stores, a darkened coffee shop. She waited under the hooded overhang of the station, the dim yellow lights throwing shadows on the pavement, the late-night air heavy as a stack of Momma Bessie's Kentucky-made patchwork quilts. She pulled the paper out of her book bag with the phone number and the address of the One Man, One Vote office, but she didn't want to call before she'd exhausted her options.
Anxious to be on her way, she stepped to the curb and reached for the door handle of the only empty cab. The cab jerked forward, then stopped a few yards beyond her reach. An embarrassment flushed her warm body, followed by a flash of chills. She took a sneaky look around and locked eyes with the grinning porter, who had just clanked his metal-wheeled cart onto the pavement trailed by a small pack of white people who seemed to snicker at her obvious ineptitude at things Southern. The porter gave her a tit-for-tat glance as he loaded his passengers into the waiting cab. Her cab. He rolled his cart back into the station, eyes glued to the air in front of him. Celeste stood alone on the pavement, Mississippi like a stain spreading through her body.
"Wharsomevers y'all goin', ah can fetchu."
The voice sounded like liquid, the words humbled and broken. She turned to see a dark, bent-over man standing in the yellow hue of the station lights. He had the blues all over him and not a note of music played. He doffed his black cabby hat when he spoke.
"Ah say, wharsomevers y'all goin', ah can fetchu. I's a caib."
A reminder this time, as if her confusion and fear had mounted on her face and he'd seen it. Relieved, Celeste showed him the mimeographed paper with the address, not saying a word. The cabby nodded with a hint of a smile and directed her toward his cab. Only now did she see the other taxi stand, the Negro one, down the block, a good hike from the station entrance. She followed him, the front of her head tightening into a mask of fake nonchalance as she stepped into the backseat holding her book bag in her lap like it was a child. The cab was black with light writing on the side. She needed to remember that. Easy. It was black. The cabby hefted her suitcase into the trunk then hunched himself into the driver's seat. They inched away from the station, Celeste having no idea where she was going or if she'd ever get there. She wanted to mark the place she was leaving but her neck wouldn't turn.
The slow-moving car and the heavy heat made her head loll back, though she didn't quite close her eyes; instead, she stared into the cab's dark ceiling, wondering what Shuck would think when he got her letter. He more than likely would blame her white boyfriend now ex-boyfriend for this decision to go south. Shuck's gaze charred the air in front of the student union when he first laid eyes on J.D. He'd ordered her into his sleek Cadillac and drove around in circles, telling her that a Negro woman with a white man would always be lonely. She'd never seen Shuck like that. "It has to do with history," he said. "And no one woman is strong enough to buck it."
Shuck's words never left her head even though she and J.D. kept doing what they'd always done, like going to Blues Night at Glinty's Bar and taking long rides on his motorcycle over two-lane country roads. But she and J.D. started arguing, about the blues of all things. J.D. claimed immense knowledge; he could produce long lists of blues singers he'd seen and heard, and swore he understood the blues as well as anyone. Celeste roared back, hands flying to her hips like someone she'd seen on a Detroit street, that unless he'd been shackled nude before the world, sold like a head of cattle, and hated like the plague, he didn't know a damned thing about the blues. When J.D. argued that Celeste didn't even look particularly Negro, that she'd grown up in circumstances as comfortable as he had (proving that she had no more claim on the blues than he), her fury erupted, spewed, and blistered until he'd walked out the door. She tried to flick off the implications of the deeper truth he'd touched upon the truth of her own privilege but in the end, it was Shuck's belief that she clung to, that race in America lived outside the purview of class or privilege, out there in a world all its own, not tethered to anything except hatred. That belief of Shuck's went deeper than any other, and J.D. helped her know it.
A floral sweetness floated on the midnight air. Shadows behind trees and hedges, white faces staring at the Negro cab prowling the lonely streets. In Ann Arbor right now, small groups of students roamed the campus, lingered in the clubs, made out in each available hallway, alcove, doorway, grove of trees. At Shuck's Royal Gardens Bar in Detroit, music and jolly repartee mingled with clinking ice cubes in every sort of glass. Laughter rang in the dim blue light. Bluesy jazz swore in the pauses. But here in Jackson, Mississippi, nothing moved that you could see except the police cars that patrolled the streets in droves, parked at intersections as if expecting an army of gun-toting gangsters or armed revolutionaries.
Away from Shuck, she began to lose ground, his sheltered world losing dimension, unable to project out to the galaxy beyond the West Side of Detroit, where things hadn't changed much in two generations. In Ann Arbor, she'd tested herself on the wrong seas. By the time the Movement speakers appeared on campus looking for recruits and money, she volunteered, gladly. There was always Shuck's voice in her head talking his race talk, pulling her back to home base and pushing her out into the world to the South at the same time.
J.D. the painter had gone to Paris for the summer. Here she was in Mississippi, in a cab going she knew not where, embarking on an adventure that had death written in the small print. According to Shuck, even as a kid she'd always had a deep sense of justice and fair play. He was pushing her to go to law school. She couldn't see it. Wilamena, her mother, thought it silly of her when she wanted to share her dolls and candy with other kids, Negro kids, who didn't have the abundance that she had. Told her she was a fool to think they'd ever return the favor. Surely there was enough injustice in Mississippi to validate her coming, and she didn't consider it a favor. Or did she? She tied her reasons for making this sojourn to all of that, and to Shuck, her father her so wanting to be like him and so wanting to be unlike her mother who'd spent her life running away from Negro people. From herself.
Celeste's head popped up from the seat back. That woman had squirmed back into her mind, in spite of her prodigious efforts to keep her mother at bay. Her memories of Wilamena had a blurry quality. She didn't leave Celeste's mind for long, though, like a touch of arthritis that flares and subsides in an aging person's body (Momma Bessie called it her new friend, "Arthur"), unannounced and unapologetic.
The cabby caught her eye in his rearview mirror. A crooked smile emerged on his turned-down mouth. She returned it, tight and small. Wilamena had moved to New Mexico with Cyril Atwood, her second husband. When they'd first gotten married, ten years ago, they'd lived in Chicago. Then Atwood got tenure at the university in Albuquerque, with research perks in Los Alamos. Away they went. She'd spent the years before her second marriage running in and out of town, more out than in, always with a suitcase packed and ready. When she and Shuck divorced, Celeste and her brother Billy stayed with Shuck. Since her remarriage, she'd never come back to Detroit, not even for Celeste's and Billy's high school graduation ceremonies.
Wilamena never did like Detroit too blue-collar, too Negro, too much of the blues underneath the city's swagger. She used to say Detroit had a veil of soot that most people couldn't even see. Of course, she never tired of asking her children to visit her in New Mexico, but Celeste pulled the curtain down when Wilamena didn't show for the graduation. She had no desire to spend weekends in a cavernous house (as described by her mother in one of her letters) making graceful conversation about weapons research and Indian art. They wrote and talked on the phone from time to time, curt little conversations that crunched rather than flowed. She sent turquoise jewelry (that Celeste kept packed in velvet bags and rarely wore) and boxes of etched stationery. Celeste figured it was her mother's investment in their continued communication.
Prickly Wilamena's escape to New Mexico suited Celeste fine. Now, she could be Shuck's daughter and be done with it. No more rough ride with Wilamena, not knowing whether she loved you or wanted to be rid of you. Besides, what Negro person moves to New Mexico? But then, what Negro person moves to Mississippi?
"We's y'here." The old man aimed his taxi to the curb.
Thank God, Celeste thought, shaking off her reflections. New people, new meanings. It was all perfectly timed. J.D. gone to Paris, Wilamena stashed in New Mexico, Billy living in New York, Shuck cool and easy in Detroit. And she was in Mississippi, of all places.
The cabby pulled in front of side-by-side storefronts on a commercial stretch near downtown Jackson and Celeste leaped out, the lights of the capital building haloing in the midnight sky a few blocks away, it seemed. Two police cars were parked across the street, the officers sitting there watching. Inside the well-lit One Man, One Vote office, heads and bodies moved around behind windows plastered with flyers and posters.
The old man carried her suitcase to the door. "Thank y'all. Thank y'all fer comin' down y'here." He doffed his cap and smiled a broken-toothed smile.
Celeste paid and tipped him like Shuck taught her to do, then walked in, the reflection of the police cars in the glass door, fear crawling into her like vine tendrils creeping up the back fence in Momma Bessie's yard.
Copyright © 2005 by Denise Nicholas
Heat sizzles jitterbugged off the pavement on Lafayette Street. Shuck maneuvered his sleek white convertible Cadillac into his parking spot a few steps from the Royal Gardens door. On Shuck's map this bar, as much as he loved it, was just a mark in pencil, a stepping-stone to a New York-style supper club. Women would sing blues and jazz with gardenias in their hair. Men would blow heartbreak licks on burnished horns, feet tapping to the beat. If he could fit Count Basie's whole band in there, he'd book them in a New York minute. He flicked his cigarette to the pavement and walked inside, the late-afternoon sun warming the back of his head.
In the cool uneven bar light, Shuck nodded to his soft-talking regulars already curled around their first drinks of the day. The blown-up figures in his custom-made "best-of-Negro-life" wallpaper stepped out of hard-glossed cars in tuxedos and draped white dresses; Duke Ellington, Paul Robeson, Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, and Louis Armstrong were there. Shuck clanked change into the jukebox, punched in Gloria Lynne, the Modern Jazz Quartet, and Coleman Hawkins. Posey, his bartender, nicknamed the big Wurlitzer the "party girl" because it lit up the alcove where it stood like a hooker caught in a police car's siren light on a corner in Paradise Valley. He took his usual seat at the back end of the bar with Gloria Lynne singing "I Wish You Love." He stacked his mail to the side and skimmed the front page of his Detroit News. The Tigers left for St. Louis. The mayor huddled with business leaders on Mackinac Island. Lenny Bruce's trial convened in New York City.
"Kids from all over the country going to Mississippi to register Negroes to vote. Negro and white kids. Volunteering." Shuck realized he'd said it out loud after he said it, then checked to see if anyone had heard him over the music. He'd been following the news about the happenings in the South. Rosa Parks had left Alabama to live in Detroit. Martin Luther King had come through there, too. But the newspaper specifically said "Negro and white kids volunteering to go to Mississippi," and that was a whole different thing.
Millicent sat on a stool at the other end of the bar fingering her pearl-plated cigarette lighter. "I'd kill my children myself before I'd let them go to Mississippi." She punctuated this with a good swallow of her drink before thudding the glass down on the bar top. Millicent was a supervisor at the main post office, dressed well, nursed her drinks, and went home early.
Celeste had been so impressed by the speakers coming up from the South, full of talk about the new, nonviolent revolution. She told Shuck about the organizing on campus. He shuddered as a tremor of dread moved through his body. He remembered her awe, her naïve view of the South apparent in every word she spoke. He stared at the newspaper and ducked his head, sorry they'd heard him before he finished the article. They chimed in just like they did when anyone brought up some tidbit of news in the bar. You could barely get a thought out before they jumped all over it.
"They won't treat those white kids the way they treat us." Iris sipped gin and tonic from a tall glass, eyeing the opulent Negroes on Shuck's wallpaper. Her hair sat in the neat rolled curls left by the curling iron. She more than likely had plans for the night and didn't want to comb it out too soon in the summer humidity. Iris, with three boys and a teenaged daughter, didn't have a steady man and wasn't going to get one. No matter. Going out and having a good time after working all week long precluded the need for a man.
Posey, his waist wrapped in his bar apron, brought Shuck's orange juice. "In Mississippi, a nigger lover and a nigger's the same damn thing."
"Not just in Mississippi." Chink sat with Rodney at a small bar table near the juke box, smoking his filter tipped cigarettes, taking shallow inhales because the doctor told him he wasn't supposed to be smoking at all.
"That's the truth." Millicent's lips pursed in finality or dare.
Iris looked out the front windows of the Royal Gardens. "You wrong."
Shuck lowered the paper a bit, then turned to the continuation of the article. "Says here they added one hundred new police officers, bought a truckload of new rifles, and they're using the fairgrounds as a prison in Jackson. The governor's hired seven hundred more highway patrolmen. Damn." Shuck's butter-cream, short-sleeved shirt flared against his dark-brown arms like a lantern burning yellow in the back corner. He wondered if all those new hired hands had any training and what kind of training it could possibly be. He didn't want to think about it. Figured they were just a bunch of Southern white boys whose main job would be to crack heads all summer long. "Go to Mississippi and end up like Emmett Till. They don't even kill like normal people," he mumbled, putting the paper down.
"Man, y'all need to forget Emmett Till. That shit happened a long time ago." Rodney, ever vigilant and eternally afraid of the wrath of white people, shook his big surly head in little swipes. He must've been reading Shuck's lips.
"How you gon' forget that, Rodney?" Shuck stepped on Rodney's words and didn't apologize, wanted to tell him to shut up, but he was too good a customer to insult.
No Negro person in his right mind would ever forget Emmett Till. Back in 1955, the regulars from the General Motors Cadillac Body Plant stumbled in the door of the Royal Gardens with a Jet magazine wedged in their back pockets. They told Shuck they'd done what they always did every time the new Jet came out bought a copy and immediately flipped the pages to the centerfold photo of a big-legged, tiny-waisted, soft-brown girl in a bathing suit. This time, they never got to the centerfold. Emmett Till, pressed into his fourteen-year-old's coffin, a bullet hole one inch above his right ear, body beaten and bloated from its dead-boy float in the mud-brown waters of the Tallahatchie River, jumped out and grabbed them on page six. It was their most god-awful nightmare come true, and not one of them had ever even been in Mississippi.
Like every Negro in America, Shuck had heard the story of Emmett Till, how he'd whistled at a pretty white girl in Money, Mississippi, and that was the last time he ever whistled. But he hadn't seen those pictures. It was like Cassius Clay had sucker-punched him hard in the stomach. With Billy and Celeste drinking soft drinks on two stools at the back end of the bar, Shuck wiped tears from his eyes and vowed he'd never let a child of his go below the Mason-Dixon line in this life or any other. Later, he talked to Billy about what had happened to Emmett Till in Mississippi. Billy told Celeste, who hadn't understood his words, but she peeked at the photos in the magazine. The kids didn't so much as mumble on the ride to Momma Bessie's that day, as if they too had come to understand something that was way beyond their age, visceral and eternal. He chastised himself for letting Celeste see those photos. He questioned himself about Billy seeing them, too, but he was older and he was a boy. The images mesmerized everyone who saw them and there was more than one lesson in them, he knew.
Big Rodney's knees bounced up and down, vibrating the ashtray across the small Formica table. "What happened to the nonviolence? Sound like they ready for war."
"Nonviolence's for us." Chink sat slouched over his ginger ale, seeming smaller than he really was next to big Rodney, and lighter, too.
"White folks not giving up a thing to Negroes without a fight." Shuck knew nothing came easy except the sweet money from hitting a dream number. "Mississippi's gonna be a bloodbath. Worse than Birmingham."
Chink uncoiled, shaking his head "no." "Nothing worse than Birmingham, man." He steadied his ice-clogged glass so Rodney wouldn't bounce it right off the table. "They bomb so many houses and churches, people callin' it Bombingham." Chink harbored a deep interest in the city where he'd been born, though as time went on he admitted it less and less.
"Man, no place is as bad as Mississippi. You know that as well as I do." They didn't know it from firsthand knowledge, but they sure knew it from myth and whispers and the running feet of all the Negroes who'd piled into Detroit. "Who knows how many Negroes been killed down there, or how many houses been bombed? Bet your sweet ass they'll know this summer with all those white kids running around. Bet you the whole damned place will change." With Shuck, everything presented itself as a possibility for a wager. He slid the stack of mail in front of him, slapping through the bills and stopping when he saw Celeste's large but even handwriting on the front of an envelope postmarked Chicago. She hadn't said anything about going to Chicago.
"See, they not going to let white kids be strung up and shot down. They not gon' do that." He tore the envelope open and pulled out the one-page note. "Anybody wanna bet?" Nobody said a word.
She'd written June 13 on the top of the letter. It was already the fifteenth.
By the time you read this, I'll be in Mississippi volunteering for the Freedom Summer project to help with voter registration.
By the time you read this, I'll be in Mississippi volunteering for the Freedom Summer project to help with voter registration.
Shuck double-checked the envelope and looked hard at the handwriting. It was Celeste's. No doubt about it. He reread the date on the top of the page, the first line. She was already in Mississippi.
I know you know what's been going on down there. Lots of kids from schools all over the country are going down. It's a big thing. Maybe by the end of the summer, the whole racial thing will be different in the South, the rest of the country, too. This will be great if I go to law school, don't you think? I'll be fine. Don't worry. You can leave a message for me at the One Man, One Vote office in Jackson, Mississippi. Will call as soon as I can.
Frozen where he sat, Shuck heard the flattened-out voices of his customers talking about rights and wrongs, about the tangled history of Negroes and white folks, saw them gesturing in the air, smoke curling up and away from their faces. Coleman Hawkins sounded like heaven must feel. Posey stood behind the bar, hands on hips, farther away than he should be. Sitting there, Shuck tried to come up with one good thing he could say about Mississippi. Everybody including his mother, Momma Bessie, would think Celeste had lost her mind leaving her good life to go to that godforsaken place. He could go down there and get her, force her to come back.
Rodney tapped his near-empty glass of ice and bar bourbon, his eyes darting toward the door. "Don't y'all have nothing else to talk about?"
"Rodney, man, stop shaking the table." Chink pressed his weight against one of the table legs. "What you want to talk about?"
"The weather. That's all he ever wants to talk about." Millicent's iridescent pink sundress and matching jacket soft-lit her face in sunset rose. Shuck looked at her down the bar. She wasn't a pretty woman, but she fixed herself up so well, you didn't even notice unless you stared at her.
Rodney's eyes snapped from the jukebox to the front door and back to the jukebox. "I don't give a damn what's going on down there." He rocked back on the chair's hind legs.
"You already broke one of my chairs, Rodney." Shuck held onto the bar to keep from going over and crashing a pitcher on Rodney's head.
Rodney leveled the chair on the floor, gave Shuck a sheepish look.
"Posey, give Rodney another drink. He's scared I got a white man from General Motors behind the walls listening." Shuck tapped the envelope corner on the bar top. "And bring me a Crown Royal on the rocks." He labored to even out his breathing, not sure if Posey heard him.
"I told him two or three times, the only white man comes in here is that mafia trainee takes the coins out the party girl." Posey's arms, sinews taut and black as raven wings, moved like precision blades setting up for the night crowd. "He's in and out so fast, I don't even know what he looks like. Shuck, you know what he looks like?"
"Posey. Bring me a Crown Royal on the rocks." This time he knew Posey heard him because Posey's eyes narrowed and clouded over with a question. Shuck drank from his private stock on momentous occasions. He tilted his head so the customers wouldn't see his eyes.
Posey stood there. "Who died?" He grabbed the Crown Royal bottle from its sacred place beneath the bar, scooped ice into a short glass, and brought it down to Shuck.
Millicent swiveled on her barstool. "Remember when Kennedy got killed? The only thing Rodney wanted to know was if a colored man had done it. Afraid every Negro in America was going to pay, especially him." She released a streamlined breath of smoke that drifted and dispersed in the space between Rodney's table and the bar.
"Celeste left school." Shuck drank the smooth whiskey down in one swallow and hit the bar top with the bottom of his glass. "Gone to Mississippi." Shuck could feel the confusion at play across his own face, muffling the clarity in his eyes.
Posey stepped back like he'd been hit, then seemed to sway with the realization. "Well, I be goddamned."
"Who's in Mississippi?" Millicent jerked around, leaned on the bar top like she might slide down to Shuck and Posey, save whoever it was in Mississippi.
"Shuck's daughter." Posey poured Shuck another drink, brandishing the elegant bottle of Crown Royal.
Shuck felt the question-marked faces of his regulars all turn to him, stare like they'd just heard some apocryphal madness. The regulars knew his kids, had watched them grow up.
Iris, her little curls and scalp parts looking like a road map to nowhere, glanced at the lush Negro images on the walls. "Well, baby, you got a problem now." She finished her drink and lit a cigarette, holding it like one of the elegant New York-looking women in the wallpaper.
"Shit's going on all over the country. She could come here and be in the Movement. Everything ain't that great right here." Shuck didn't know if the words came out of his mouth or not, but he sure thought them hard. The only thing to do with Mississippi was to leave it, to run away from it as fast as you could. Or, better yet, blow it off the map of the United States. Not one more Negro person had to die in that place for the point to be made. Then a gnawing thought took hold. More than likely that paintbrush-wielding, blue-jeans-and-sandals-wearing white boy-friend had something to do with this decision. Shuck's teeth clamped down until his jaw muscles hurt. Just like a white boy to lead his daughter to hell, a hell he more than likely would survive without a scratch but where she could die in a split second. He was white. He could fade into the woodwork of Mississippi or any place else for that matter. Celeste couldn't.
"Now, see, that's what I mean. You can't control these kids nowadays. That girl's had the best of everything from the day she was born, and look at her." Iris sucked on her cigarette, now the authority on raising children, satisfied, as if she and Shuck had something in common because her seventeen-year-old son had already been arrested for stealing a car.
Shuck sipped his whiskey and thought of a thousand places Celeste might've gone starting with right there in Detroit. But he knew that in some way he had something to do with this, that by being a race man himself, he allowed for the possibility of his children seeing things just like him. Only he hadn't counted on it going so far. Could be the white boy had nothing to do with it.
And what about Wilamena? Celeste had a way of not telling her mother the big things. Wilamena would call him looking for Celeste. He needed another shot of Crown Royal. Now Celeste had run off, just like her mother. No. This wasn't like that at all. Celeste was doing something big, not just running off. He caught himself feeling a moment of pride. Men went to war to find themselves, came back different people, some better, some not so good at all. He knew he wouldn't have gone down there for all the tea in China. Not to Mississippi. And what would it do to her?
Maybe he should've remarried, made a traditional home, instead of living his life exactly the way he wanted and pushing the mothering off on other people. Never saw any cracks in his way of raising his children until now. Billy rarely came home. Now Celeste had run to Mississippi and didn't even tell him until she was already there. That's not how things were supposed to be.
"Why we got to be the ones always fighting for something? Paying double, triple, quadruple?" In the thin light, Chink's yellow-tinged skin shone dingy white.
Shuck felt prophetic. "That's what the whole damned thing's about. Paying dues until they wear you down. What you need is a gun. You got the right gun, you'll get your rights. Now, you take those peckawoods in Mississippi. I bet you give those Negroes some guns, they won't have any problems registering to vote. White folks understand two things. Guns and money." He might take his own gun and go down there. That would be the end of it. Bring Celeste home. "Damn."
"You got a gun, Shuck, you better pack it up and send it down there to your daughter." Iris sounded delighted, gripping the rounded edge of the oak bar as if the room was spinning. "The government needs to take care of that stuff anyway."
Shuck put a toothpick in the corner of his mouth, twirled it a couple of times. "Whole lot of things they're supposed to do." He dropped the toothpick in the ashtray next to his empty glass, his hands trembling.
"It's those slow-assed niggers in Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama letting crackers walk all over them. They the ones needing some rights. Not us," Rodney said.
"You need to leave it alone, Rodney." Chink's warning floated like a buoy at low tide. "When's the last time you stood up to one, huh?"
Millicent talked to her drink. "Nothing between them and us but a few miles."
"Not even that." Chink moaned.
Iris shot a look to Shuck. "Where in Mississippi is she, Shuck?"
What difference did it make where in Mississippi Celeste was? It was the same damned thing. Mississippi didn't have any good neighborhoods for Negroes. It wasn't like Detroit. Dearborn might be a bad zone for Negroes, but Detroit was a good one. None of that in Mississippi. No place to run. No place to hide.
"Down south, they have sit-ins, nonviolent stuff. Up here, we have riots." Millicent's cigarette created a small, white crossbar to her brown fingers and deep pink nails, jabbing the air in Shuck's direction. "Nobody's thinking about nonviolence up here."
"I'm still happy to be up here," Rodney said.
"You one of them 'I'se so happy to be here' Negroes, always saying 'thank you, massa' for something that was yours to begin with." Posey stared at Rodney without a hint of fellowship in his eyes. But no matter what anyone ever said to him, Rodney shrugged it off, burly and untouchable.
Rodney sneaked a look at the floor. "Well, I saw them dogs and fire hoses on the news. Where would you rather be?"
"Shut up, Rodney." Posey glared at him.
Shuck heard them and didn't hear them, jumping over their references, scanning his own life and past, seeing Celeste and Billy as children, each holding one of his hands, walking on the island park, Belle Isle, going to the movies, buying ice cream, sitting in Momma Bessie's rose-scented backyard.
"I remember the race riot, man. 1943. Now that was awful. June then, just like now and already hotter than hell." Posey sounded like he wanted to say it and didn't want to, like he was pushing a conversation about something else, anything in the past, to help Shuck.
Rodney yelled out above Posey, above the suction vents, air conditioners, icemakers, humming ceiling fans, jukebox. "Shit always happens when it's hot." He folded back in his chair.
Shuck let the memory of those old days float into his head. Back in the forties, waves of Negroes and whites from the South overwhelmed Detroit. Instead of Packards and Cadillacs, they built tanks, jeeps, army trucks, airplanes, and PT boats. People lived jammed too many to a room, slept in closets, on porches, wherever a mattress would fit, or just a folded blanket would do. Lines for food, for streetcars, for housing, for everything. Momma Bessie even rented rooms in the old house on Whitewood, bringing down the wrath of the few whites who hadn't run when they'd moved in. Rocks hurled into windows. It never ended.
Chink wagged his head from side to side like a sad-faced dog. "It was bad on Belle Isle. Never forget it."
Millicent and Iris faced the bar mirrors, thin hazy smoke threads winding from the ends of their cigarettes, heads delicately ticktocking back and forth.
"People used to cart their picnic things out there on the streetcar." Millicent's chin dipped.
"The day that riot started was no time to be fooling around on streetcars." Posey dried glasses with a vengeance, clanking them down on the bar sink. "Peckawoods pulled people off, beat them in the street."
"Whole lot of Negroes got killed," Rodney said.
"Few white boys, too," Chink added.
"Right." Rodney's knee started twitching. "A few."
Shuck went to the jukebox and punched in "Take the 'A' Train" and "Broadway," escaping to his New York dream. He sat again, looking at the night-life Negroes with pearl white teeth and processed hair, Joe Louis in the ring, Thurgood Marshall on the steps of the Supreme Court, Lena Horne draped on a Hollywood post, Nat "King" Cole at the piano.
Evening trucks from the post office jarred the big window across the front of the Royal Gardens. That big plate glass window irked Shuck, though he liked seeing his Cadillac parked at the curb, the patterns of traffic, the twist and turn of the seasons women in their sundresses, hair up off their necks, then later the first bustling skips of autumn, the snow when it came lashing with the wind off the lakes, barreling back and forth across the city. And spring hard as it was to see spring on Lafayette Street, all black tar and concrete. Smaller panes of leaded glass would be more elegant, more mysterious, make the place look less like a dressed-up storefront.
The talk about the riot of 1943 went on around him, the voices heavier, garbled, swimming in and out of the music, in and out of his thoughts. He reminded himself that children were born to leave, the universe ordered it, that Billy would stay in New York, that Celeste would run off to Mississippi. And always there was the thought of Wilamena with her new husband in New Mexico. He kept thinking of the man as her new husband. It had been nearly ten years. Longer than that since she'd pulled the plug on Detroit.
Copyright © 2005 by Denise Nicholas
Meet the Author
Denise Nicholas is an actor and writer who has starred in numerous films and TV shows, including Room 222, for which she earned three Golden Globe nominations, and In the Heat of the Night, for which she also wrote several episodes. She lives in Southern California and is currently at work on a memoir.
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