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Guillaume A Life
By Robert Guillaume with David Ritz
University of Missouri Press Copyright © 2002 Robert Guillaume and David Ritz
All right reserved.
Chapter One Two Women
I'm a bastard, a Catholic, the son of a prostitute, and a product of the poorest slums of St. Louis.
How did I make it out? How did I get from there to here? How did I get past the confusion of my childhood and find my way in the world?
For much of my childhood, I was told my mother was my sister. I'm not sure when I learned the truth. The role of mother was taken over by my grandmother. She-Jeannette Williams-took over my life. At the same time, I sought the affection of her rival, her own daughter, Zoe Bertha Edwards, my mother. My three siblings-brother James (two years older), sister Cleo (two years younger) and sister Dolores (six years younger)-went by the name Edwards. I was called Robert Williams.
The lies surrounding my mother triggered my anger. But if I was an angry kid, I was also divided: part of me clung to the grandmother who saved my life. That part of me was a goody-goody altar boy who even considered the priesthood until I was told that no bastard could be a priest. Another part of me was an unruly rebel who bucked authority. The two parts clashed. I ran from one side back to the other-sweet obedient child today; in-your-face asshole tomorrow.
I despised poverty. Who doesn't?Poverty fuels anger, even as it fuels the drive to escape. A kind of prison, poverty defines reality and deflates hope.
I was born on November 30, 1927, in the shadow of downtown St. Louis not far from the Mississippi River. The city was still the prosperous rail center of America, but its prosperity did not trickle down. Our tenement was wedged between redbrick industrial buildings and factories that turned out cough drops, paints, balloons, and dry goods. Just around the corner, Lambert Pharmaceuticals manufactured Listerine and the International Shoe Company stitched and soled footwear. I grew up in a world of workers. Only blocks away was the world of imposing public buildings, courthouses, opera houses, fancy hotels, grand boulevards, and ornate movie palaces from which blacks were excluded. The residential sector of our neighborhood, once Jewish, had turned black. Jewish merchants remained prominent but no longer lived by their stores. The movement of money and social status was to the west, away from the levee.
I wasn't conscious of the Great Depression, which hit St. Louis in the thirties. I was too young to understand. I saw the city as an enormous machine humming along at its own pace. We lived in the upstairs back-alley apartment of a two-story row house with neither plumbing nor electricity. We had virtually nothing-cracked linoleum on the floor, dilapidated furniture, a store-bought basin in which to wash, an outhouse in the gravel yard that serviced four apartments and two dozen people. The stench was unrelenting. Our evenings were illuminated by kerosene. We roasted in summer and froze in winter, heat sputtering from a wood-burning potbellied stove.
The emotional heat came from the hostility between my mother and grandmother. It was painful to watch. As an infant, I was in my mother's care. But at age six or seven, I was spirited away by my grandmother. From then on, Jeannette Williams raised me. At that point, Jeannette called her daughter Bunk. I was told that Bunk was my sister. I'm not sure why. Maybe Grandma was protecting me from knowledge she thought would hurt me. Eventually, though, kids learn the truth. The truth, my grandmother told me, was that the scar behind my right ear came from a hot poker wielded by my mother's husband, George Edwards. George Edwards was a powerful man. My grandmother was a powerful protector. As a young woman, my mother had lost her power. She couldn't stop her man from beating me. At least that was Grandma's side of the story. That's why she took me from my mother and left my three siblings behind. Save Robert; Robert's in danger. But why Robert and Robert alone?
Maybe because when George Edwards looked at me, he saw proof of my mother's unfaithfulness. Edwards was not my father. My own father had neither a face nor a name. I was never told who he was, what he did, or why he disappeared. Edwards was hell-bent on controlling my mother. My very existence symbolized a breakdown of his control.
I was haunted by other symbols, frightening physical signs of Bunk's violent relationships with men. There were scars on her face, nicks on her hands, cuts on her arms. This in contrast to her stunning beauty, her luminous red-skinned complexion, her dark eyes, and her voluptuous figure. I was also struck by her fine handwriting, a feminine, flowing script indicating a culture that had long been lost. I longed for her love. I might have been an angry kid, but there's not a kid in the world who doesn't hunger for a mother's love.
One moment stands suspended in time:
I was feeling bad. Feeling alone. Feeling like I wanted to be cuddled and held and covered with kisses. That was the moment when I ran to her. By then I knew she was not my sister. I was six years old. She was my mother, and I ran right into her arms. Shelter me, I was silently saying; hold me and tell me it's gonna be alright.
"Get away from me, you little black bastard!" she screamed in my face. I still hear those words.
I got the message. She couldn't stand the sight of me. Didn't want me near her. Didn't want to touch me. Or to be touched. Didn't matter that she was drunk with anger or drunk on booze. All that mattered was the rejection. The rejection hit me like a ton of bricks.
Kids don't understand alcohol. They don't see addiction to it as a disease. I saw my mother's alcoholism through the eyes of my grandmother-as moral weakness. I couldn't see that my mother was sick the way, say, people are sick with diabetes or arthritis. I also couldn't grasp why Bunk was always drawn to worthless sons of bitches.
"Before Daddy," my baby sister Dolores, now sixty-six, recalled, "Mama was a church girl. It was Daddy who put her on the corner."
Dolores's daddy, George Edwards, resembled Adam Clayton Powell, with wavy hair and a high-yellow complexion.
"Daddy was prideful," said Dolores, who devoted her life to professional nursing and the mothering of her thirteen children. "His mother was white, his father was black, and women loved his looks. He had lots of women out there on the corner. He ran rum and card games. One night he was at his game when a man broke into our house. James ran to get Daddy, who rushed home and beat the burglar so brutally that the man had to have a steel plate in his head. Daddy was like that. He'd snap. Another time he heard a policeman talking sweet to Mama. You'd think he'd think twice about striking an officer. Not Daddy. He slapped the policeman silly. And the policeman, knowing Daddy's reputation, did nothing.
"Many were the times he took an open razor to Mama. Bunk would throw up her arms to protect her face, and he'd slash her arms. We'd hide under the bed and muffle our cries, afraid he'd come after us. He made James sit and fan him, like he was a king. He made Mama crazy. Turned her into an angry woman. Turned her mean. She'd leave him, but he'd go after her and drag her back by her hair. He had many women working that corner, but Bunk was his obsession. He made her heel. There was no escaping the man."
Because my grandmother provided an escape for me and me alone, everything changed. Eventually, Grandma brought my three siblings into her home, but for two critical years I was her only child. I felt like she saved me. Jeannette Williams, for better or worse, made me who I am. My feelings for her were huge. I loved her; I feared her; I felt grateful to her; and I was also ashamed of her. She was a servant. In Grandma's younger days the boys had called her a brick house. When I came to live with her, she was in her early fifties and still had a good body. Her facial features were prominent with high African cheekbones and copper-colored skin. To some she looked like an Indian. I knew she came from Kansas, but that's all I knew. She never mentioned her husband, who had died-or left-before I was born. Like the moon or the sun or the earth beneath my feet, Grandma was simply there.
She was austere. In contrast to Bunk, she was righteous. And rigid. There was nothing second class about Jeannette Williams. She was not the average black woman of her generation, yet she was thoroughly black. She labored all her life as a domestic and took pride in her work. No matter how rich or prominent her employers, which included Catholic clergymen, she was quick to tell them that it was she, not they, who knew how to iron a shirt. She was a professional. She also didn't have attitudes about any particular group. My mother, on the other hand, had all sorts of attitudes.
"Bunk had a thing about dark-skinned colored people," said Dolores. "She didn't like them, and she pushed them away."
I have dark skin, and Bunk pushed me away. Grandma protected me from Bunk's crazy husband, but was she also protecting me from Bunk's antidark attitude? In the war between my mother and grandmother, I sided with Grandma because Grandma had sided with me. I clung to her for dear life. I saw her as saintly. She was God's gift to me, just as I was God's gift to her. If I felt suffocated by her protectiveness, it was a feeling I hid. Acknowledging feelings wasn't part of my upbringing. When feelings came up, I stuffed them back in my head and kept them hidden from my heart.
In the two years that I lived alone with Grandma, I moved between two households. I couldn't stay away from Bunk and my brother and sisters. They were my blood. I couldn't help but be drawn to my mother. She was young and beautiful; she bore mysterious scars. I didn't know she was a prostitute. I didn't know what prostitution was. These are things I later learned from my sister Dolores, a beautiful chocolate-skinned woman who spoke the quiet truth. I missed Dolores and Cleo and James and often walked across the Eighteenth Street Bridge to Papin Street in South St. Louis, where they lived, in fear, with Bunk.
Fear excites children. Horror movies, for example, break up the boredom of everyday life. George Edwards was a monster in a horror movie. On Papin Street, he and his cronies would be drinking and gambling in one room, my siblings and I would be in another. The voices of the men would be loud, now laughing, now cursing, now boasting or threatening violence. I felt the excitement and the fear. I also felt resentment and exclusion from my siblings, whether real or imagined. In my absence, they had formed an alliance. I was no longer a member of their club. I had been taken by my grandmother; they had been left behind, and none of us really knew what it meant. Was I the lucky one? Or were they lucky for having each other?
"Daddy died when we were still young," said Dolores. "Mama wouldn't attend his funeral. That's how much she hated the man. After that, Grandma came and got us-me, James, and Cleo. We went to live with her and Robert. Bunk came, too, but Bunk was always disappearing. She'd say, `Kids, I'm just going out for a little while.' We'd beg her not to; we knew that meant she'd be gone for a long, long time. `I promise I'll be right back,' she'd say. `You won't be right back,' we'd cry. `You never come right back.' And sure enough, weeks, sometimes even months, passed before we saw her again. Then one day we'd get home from school and there was Bunk, sober as a church mouse, cooking our meal, washing and ironing our clothes like nothing had ever happened."
Because I cherished my siblings' company, I was happy our family reunited. But I was also pissed that my status as the only child-the chosen one-was demolished. I'd felt privileged living alone with Grandma. Or, as Dolores put it, "Grandma turned Robert into a spoiled brat." Grandma saved her pennies to dress me in a Little Lord Fauntleroy suit, causing kids to call me a sissy. Like it or not, our family of two became a family of six. Jeannette was the authority figure, the steady provider. Bunk was the bad daughter, the negligent mother, the false sister, here today, gone tomorrow, wild as the wind. Wild also were the fights between mother and daughter, wild and fierce and ugly.
"Reverend DeLoach was one of Mama's boyfriends," said Dolores. "But Grandma liked him too. That's one of the reasons they fell out. They had words over the man. It was sad to see."
Romantic rivalry was another source of tension. Their arguments were hateful. I identified with Grandma. It was Bunk who called me a black bastard, Bunk who lived the forbidden life that threatened our well-being. Yet it was Bunk whose lovely singing voice still echoes in my ear, Bunk whose beauty drew me to her just as her nastiness pushed me away. I remember her dancing with her boyfriend Booby the pool shark, a short man with kind eyes and a quick smile. When they did the two-step in our tiny flat, he'd put his head under her breasts, and she'd place her hands on his head, and they'd dance without a care in the world.
I know things now I didn't know then. For instance, Bunk was only seventeen when James was born and nineteen when I was born. There was a son before James-Lexter. Lexter was born when Bunk was a mere child, fourteen or fifteen. I don't know why it took me a lifetime to finally hear the story of Lexter. Maybe it's peculiar to my family that painful stories were suppressed. Maybe it's typical of black families in this period of American history. I can't say. It's ironic that this story-and others to follow-deepens my empathy for my mother some two decades after her death.
"Lexter would go to sleep standing up," said Dolores. "Mama was giving him a bath. She didn't know he was sleeping, and somehow he slipped from her grasp and fell to the floor. The fall crushed his tiny skull. He died instantly. Lexter was barely one year old. After that, Grandma didn't trust Bunk. She blamed Bunk for Lexter's death. From then on, Grandma and Bunk would be at each other's throats for as long as they both lived."
The trauma was devastating. I can see why Bunk sought escape through powerful men and strong drink. I can see why her judgmental mother became a constant reminder of her own flaws. I can see why she'd run away from this family-run away from us-only to be drawn back by a sense of love and responsibility, only to be reminded that this was the family she had failed, the family she had to flee, the family that, despite everything, she could never completely abandon. Bunk's story concluded on a surprising high note. But that comes later. For now, I'm still a kid, uptight and confused, living in my grandmother's house in the slums of St. Louis as the Great Depression grinds on.
Chapter Two Bedrock of My Rebellion
My duality-the good Robert versus the bad Robert, the dutiful grandson versus the defiant renegade-was only intensified by Catholicism. By converting to that religion and entrusting me to the nuns and priests, Grandma exerted her greatest influence. Like it or not, I was to have a strict Catholic education.
For poor blacks, the Catholic Church represented a measure of distinction. I liked that. In no other aspect of life did I feel special or privileged. I got caught up in the pageantry and music. I discovered a talent and distinguished myself by singing church music. That music was born of another culture, but I adopted it all the same. In my mind, the music carried me from the St. Louis ghetto to the magnificent cathedrals of Germany, Italy, and France. At the same time, I resisted the church's rules and regulations. Some of the teachers were prejudiced. Some encouraged me, but others shunned me because of my dark skin.
The church school, St. Nicholas's Elementary, was at 1918 Lucas while we lived at 1916. The church itself was on the corner. Grandma worked at the rectory, where she meticulously washed and ironed the priests' shirts and the nuns' habits for eight dollars a week. Never was a single complaint lodged against her. In contrast, complaints against me were unending.
Excerpted from Guillaume by Robert Guillaume with David Ritz Copyright © 2002 by Robert Guillaume and David Ritz
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.