By Bernice L. McFadden
Copyright © 2010 Bernice L. McFadden
All right reserved.
If Jack Johnson had let James Jeffries beat him on July 4, 1910, which would have proven once and for all that a white man was ten times better than a Negro, then black folk wouldn't have been walking around with their backs straight and chests puffed out, smiling like Cheshire cats, upsetting good, God-fearing white folk who didn't mind seeing their Negroes happy, but didn't like seeing them proud.
If Jack Johnson had given up and allowed James Jeffries to clip him on the chin, which would have sent him hurling down to the floor where he could have pretended to be knocked out cold, then maybe Easter Bartlett's father wouldn't have twirled his wife and daughters around the house by their pinky fingers and his son John Bartlett Jr. wouldn't have felt for the first time in his life pleased and glad to be a black man. And if Jack Johnson had let the shouts of "Kill that nigger" that rang out from the crowd unravel him or the Nevada heat irritate him, maybe then he would have lost the fight and things would have remained as they were.
Things could have gone a different way if Jack Johnson hadn't gotten the notion some years earlier to cap his teeth in gold, so his smile added insult to injury when he was announced the victor of the "The Fight of the Century," and that glittering grin slapped white folk hard across their faces.
And if John Bartlett Sr. hadn't bet on Jack Johnson to win, then he wouldn't have had the extra money to buy his wife and two daughters new dresses from the most expensive dress shop in town, and the older of the two girls called Rlizbeth wouldn't have let her hair down and donned that brand-new yellow dress that made her look like an angel, so those white boys wouldn't have noticed her, wouldn't have called out to her from across the road, wouldn't have followed her and jumped her just as she reached the bend and dragged her into the brush, where they raped and beat her.
If all of that hadn't happened, then Easter wouldn't have looked up to see her sister crawling home on all fours like a dog, with a bloodstain shaped like the state of Texas on the backside of Rlizbeth's dress. Easter wouldn't have bore witness to the bite marks on Rlizbeth's breasts, and wouldn't have heard the silence that streamed out of Rlizbeth's mouth when she opened it to scream.
No sound at all.
Because after the first boy rammed his dick inside of Rlizbeth, her voice floated up into the sky never to be heard from again. And Easter wouldn't have had to accompany John Sr. down to the sheriff's office because her mother wouldn't let him go alone and wouldn't-couldn't-send John Jr. because that boy hadn't unclenched his fists or his jaw since it happened, and besides blood was swimming in his irises and he claimed to hear it thumping in his ears, so Easter went and then watched her father change from a man to boy right before her very eyes.
And if Sheriff Wiley had not forced Easter and her father to stare at the filthy soles of his boots, because it had not suited him to remove his feet from atop the wooden desk, and if Wiley had looked them straight in the eye like he would have his own kind instead of watching them from beneath the shade of the wide-brim hat he wore, and maybe if he'd believed John Sr. when he said, "I knows it was white boys cause we found tufts of blond and red hair clutched in Rlizbeth's hands," and Wiley had just gone out and found those boys and arrested them instead of suggesting that Rlizbeth had torn her own dress, bit her own breasts, and broke her own hymen all in order to cover up the somewhere or someone she had no place being or seeing-then maybe life for Easter would have been different.
But Wiley didn't do the right thing, and Easter looked up at her father who sat next to her with his head bowed and she heard his timid voice say, "Yes suh, I suppose you could be right, but how do you explain the hair? The red and blond hair?"
Wiley said he couldn't explain it and then dismissed them by tugging the brim of his hat down over his face and bid them a good day. If he hadn't done that and Easter hadn't seen the tears welling up in her father's eyes, she wouldn't have turned into the snarling howling thing and her father wouldn't have caught her by the waist just as she leapt across the desk intent on tearing out Wiley's throat.
If Jack Johnson hadn't been quite so dark and hadn't pumped his fists in the air like the champion he was then maybe ...
If Rlizbeth had just put on one of the old, worn dresses she owned and kept her hair pulled back in a tight bun, Easter probably never would have written the word HATE on a piece of paper, crumpled it into a ball, dropped it in a hole in the ground, and covered it with dirt, and her mother wouldn't have tried to go back to living as if that awful day hadn't happened and those boys weren't walking around as free as birds, and she never would have had the strain of pretending that everything was normal even though Rlizbeth had lost her voice and John Jr. had taken to staring down every white man in the town and John Sr. was intent on trying to make himself grow big again and thought that taking refuge in the arms of another woman would help him do that.
And if Zelda hadn't found the love letters pressed into the pages of her husband's Bible, letters written on fine onionskin paper that smelled of rose water, then John Jr. wouldn't have caught her crying, wouldn't have seen the letters scattered on the floor, and wouldn't have hit his father so hard that it knocked the wind out of both men. If all of that hadn't happened, then John Jr. wouldn't have had to leave the house, the town, and the state, and Easter might have gone on loving and respecting her father. But it did and Zelda's heart snapped under the strain, pain, and betrayal, and she died.
If there had not been a funeral, there would not have been a repast, so there would have been no need for Easter's father to wait patiently for the last mourner to leave the house before he changed his clothes, mounted his horse, and galloped off into the night leaving the scent of his pipe tobacco hanging in the air. And if he hadn't left, then he couldn't have returned with the wide-eyed, milky-brown woman who smelled of rose water and wasn't much older than Rlizbeth. He couldn't have brought her into their home, told Easter and Rlizbeth her name-which was Truda-and then informed them that she was his new wife and their new mother.
If Jack Johnson had just thrown the fight and Rlizbeth had maybe walked down a different road and not have been so pretty, everything would have remained the same in their small home and Easter would not have known the aching sadness of a dead mother, gone brother, and mute and ruined sister. And if there were no ache and no sadness then Easter would not have taken the gown that her mother died in, laid it across the dining room table, and arranged the china, crystal, and the silverware with the scrolled handles on top of it as if it was a special holiday and the family was expecting dinner guests. And she would not have placed bunches of flowers at the neckline, hemline, and sleeves-but she did, and when Truda walked into the dining room the next morning she forgot to breathe.
And if Truda hadn't forgotten to breathe, then maybe she wouldn't have screamed, which of course brought John Sr. into the room to see what was the matter. After that he kicked in the door to Easter's bedroom and found her sitting at the edge of the bed staring at her palms. He charged in and loomed over her like a great black hawk and hollered that he should have drowned her at birth. And if he hadn't said those hurtful words, Easter would have stayed in Waycross, Georgia, married, had children, grown old, and died.
But on that summer day in 1910, Jack Johnson did beat James Jeffries and Rlizbeth did put on that yellow dress that made her look like an angel and nothing and nobody was ever the same again.
Excerpted from Glorious by Bernice L. McFadden Copyright © 2010 by Bernice L. McFadden. Excerpted by permission.
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