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When I was born in 1950, our address was Route 1, Box 31, Midland, Georgia - a country village roughly ninety miles southwest of Atlanta. The nearest city, Columbus, was fifteen miles away. Columbus was known for its textile mills and for Fort Benning, a large army base. We lived on a small farm about a quarter mile from Macon Road. While sitting on our porch, we sometimes watched the traffic - black neighbors and white strangers - passing by. Some of them waved and we waved back - a country custom. A railroad track ran parallel to Macon Road; to amuse ourselves, my brother Will and I counted the boxcars of smoking freight trains. Plum trees framed each side of the dirt road leading from the highway to our front door. In the spring, their pink and white blossoms filled the morning air with a fruity fragrance. When the plums turned red, kids from nearby came to pick them. Will and I would tell them to leave our plums alone. "These are not your plums. These are God's plums!" they'd say. During the summer, when we sat on our porch and watched the sunset, we heard the whippoorwills singing. At night, we sometimes stood in our yard searching for stars and constellations - the North Star, the Big Dipper, the Little Dipper. Sometimes we saw stars shooting across the night like distant fireworks.
The yellow school bus Daddy drove - with bold black letters spelling out MUSCOGEE COUNTY SCHOOL DISTRICT - was always parked in the yard. Our house, surrounded by acres of farmland, looked like so many others in the rural South. The rain and wind and sun had given our paintless house the aged appearance of an old wooden fence. We had five rooms: a "front" or living room, two bedrooms, a small kitchen, and an "outside" room that served as an all-purpose area. We had neither running water nor electricity. An old fireplace produced the winter heat we needed. Mama used our wood stove every morning to cook grits and bake biscuits. Our well had gone dry and Daddy hauled our water in galvanized cans from a spring.
The farmland was owned by Dr. Neal Willis, one of the two white doctors in Columbus who would see black patients. Daddy rented the house and was caretaker of the land. I don't know who built it and when, but I know Mama's family had lived there before she married. The house eventually sheltered nine children and two adults. My two eldest brothers, Joseph Jr. and Branch, came first; then three sisters, Christine, Betty, and Doris; then myself, followed by Willie; finally, "the Christmas babies," Barbara and Alonzo, born two years apart, both on Christmas Day.
Before I started school, Daddy grew vegetables and acres of cotton. He grew much of the food we ate and he peddled collard and turnip greens, cabbage, okra, corn, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, watermelons, and cantaloupes throughout Columbus's black neighborhoods and at the white Farmer's Market. He also sold charcoal. In 1955, after Daddy started working at Bibb Textile Mill, he gave up on the cotton and charcoal. He still had three jobs - he drove a school bus; he worked the graveyard shift at Bibb Mill; he continued farming.
Although we could see people coming and going from our front porch, we rarely had visitors. Every now and then a neighbor or relative would drop by. Every guest's visit was an event for us. I was especially pleased whenever Mrs. Jackson stopped by. She was an elderly woman who lived in "the quarter," a group of ramshackle houses about a mile or two away where some of the so-called "outlaw" Negroes lived. She was usually chewing gum, sometimes sticking a piece she had already chewed behind her earlobe. She was a gossip, telling Mama about various husbands, wives, marriages, and affairs. I'd listen as Mrs. Jackson punctuated her sentences by popping her gum.
She talked nonstop, pausing only to laugh from time to time at certain details. Mama would respond in amused disbelief. "Honey, hush your mouth!" Mama said. I'd listen to as much as I could until they would arrive at some juicy adult secret. Mama would notice me and say, "stop looking in grown folks' mouths!" Then I'd have to get out of there.
But the Jackson stories were too good to pass up. After leaving the room, I'd sit quietly by the door outside and eavesdrop. Most of the time they spoke in an adult code.
"Oh no she didn't!" Mama said.
"Oh yes she did and as BIG as you please. And honey, her breath smelled just like a whiskey barrel!" Mrs. Jackson replied.
"Hush your mouth!" Mama repeated.
One day Mrs. Jackson told a story that left me terrified. She was reporting on a family who had become notorious for what was clearly child abuse. All the parents we knew routinely whipped their kids, but these particular parents beat their kids and drew blood. Mrs. Jackson said their son Sam, who was nine, had a bedwetting problem. At first, his parents tried to cure him by "beating him dry" each morning. When the mother's daily beatings failed, she "smoked" her son. She forced Sam into a large burlap bag, the kind used for picking cotton. She tied the bag at the top and suspended it by rope above a pile of smoking rubble. When Sam began jerking and coughing uncontrollably, he'd be released. As Mrs. Jackson put it, "That's a crime and a shame before God." Mrs. Jackson, visiting as she frequently did while chewing her gum and telling her stories, was my favorite guest. But other black neighbors and sometimes relatives also stopped by.
It was a major event whenever a white person showed up at our door. My relationship to whites during the earliest years of my childhood were all passing moments in which I, following my mother or father, had brief encounters. When I was four or five years old, I often went with my father on errands to Mr. J. Roy Burkes's store. One day two white men teased me by holding out an opened bottle of orange soda. One pushed it to my lips and as I was about to take a sip, he jerked it away. They had played a crude trick on me and broke out in knee-slapping laughter. My father came to my rescue without addressing them. We got into our truck and on the way home he tried to explain what had happened and why. I don't recall what he said. His careful and instructive tone signaled the significance of the incident.
I found it all a puzzle. I recall that a white insurance collector visited our house and teased my brother Will and me by staring intently at us and suddenly jutting out his false teeth. Sometimes he joked about cutting off our "weesacks!" I suppose he was just clowning, playing upon the novelty of his appearance before our very eyes. Although he and my father laughed and joked, no black adult we knew behaved in that manner. He remained a perpetual curiosity.
Any visitor, relative or stranger, white or black, was exciting. Whenever we kids heard an approaching car or truck, we raced madly to the front door. The sound of a truck or car helped relieve the boredom of country living. There was, for instance, the black man nobody in the family knew who sometimes drove, waving politely, past our front porch and up the the dirt road that led to the woods beyond our cornfield. We assumed that he was going hunting. Then one day as the green car got farther and farther away, a woman's head popped into view on the passenger side. An hour later the man would drive by again waving goodbye. The woman, presumably crouching inside, was invisible.
Late one afternoon when I was in first grade, my sister Doris and I heard a car and rushed to the door before Mama, whose hands were covered in dough, got there. We stood in the doorway and watched a white man we had never seen park near our oak tree.
"Is your daddy at home?" he asked.
"No sir, he works at night," Doris answered. The man asked no further questions and was driving away as my mother made it to the door.
His question and Doris's quick reply sounded reasonable enough to me. But overhearing Doris and peering warily out the door as the white man drove away, Mama slapped Doris with such angry force that Doris stumbled, fell, and started crying uncontrollably. Mama's anger frightened me too and snapped me to attention. As Doris lay weeping on the floor, Mama lectured us about talking to white strangers. "That man could have been a Ku Klux. He could come back in the middle of the night and kill all of us," she said.
Since I'd heard Daddy repeat the biblical passage about how "death comes as a thief and a robber by night," I interpreted Mama's angry admonition as a prediction of what would happen that very night. As Mama went on to describe white men dressed in white sheets burning crosses and murdering Negroes, the words Ku Klux Klan took on a life of their own in my mind. Every time I heard the words, I prayed to see the light of the next day. The shotgun we owned didn't seem like sufficient protection.
Although we learned early that the KKK was real and dangerous, we lived free of locks and keys. We opened and shut our doors with wooden latches. Whenever it rained, we listened to raindrops beating on our tin roof, the volume rising and the tempo speeding up as the rain fell harder, then slowed to a faint tap, tap, tap above our heads. During summer, when the sky darkened and an unexpected thunderstorm broke out, we were ordered to sit still and be quiet as the lightning flashed and the thunder roared. "God was talking," Mama said. When the winter wind blew, it whistled as it came through our porous walls, sounding distant and strange like alien spirits conspiring together.
There were more animals around us than there were people. At night, our two mutts, Lucy and Snowball, howled at the moon or barked at approaching raccoons. Our chicken coop was a stone's throw from the front porch. We had about twenty egg-laying hens and two mean roosters that woke us at dawn with their persistent crowing. We never raised cows, but we always had hogs. We castrated some of the young boars, and we slaughtered sows and boars around Christmas time. We kept an old mule we used for plowing our fields and as an all-purpose beast of burden.
All the children helped Daddy in the fields. Junior and Branch, my older brothers, plowed the fields and fertilized the seedlings. My older sisters - Christine, Betty, and Doris - picked peas and beans. My younger brother Will and I were the bug pickers. Daddy gave us Campbell's soup cans containing kerosene. We went from plant to plant, picking the bugs and tossing them to their deaths. Will and I sometimes turned our work into play. We caught grasshoppers. We chased butterflies across the fields. Bluejays, intelligent and mean, sometimes aggressively swooped down at us. When Daddy wasn't around, we threw rocks at yellow jacket nests. The yellow jackets came buzzing out after us like a squadron of bomber pilots on a dedicated mission. Sometimes they stung us, ending for the day our daring adventures in the Georgia fields.
The fields were our playgrounds. Sometimes the setting inspired dreams of worlds elsewhere. Airplanes occasionally flew over, leaving their trailing white lines of smoke soon to disappear as though erased from the blue skies. I wondered where they were going - maybe to Chicago where my aunt Elizabeth and cousin Elijah lived or perhaps overseas where Uncle Bud had gone to fight a war.
In a house without electricity, my sister Doris offered another kind of entertainment. She was the fourth-grade director and featured performer in a one-girl show called "The Magic Television." Her show was a saga about wars among imaginary Indian tribes, the Jutts, the Cypress, and the Phisters. Our "front" room was her stage. Will and I were her willing audience. Carrying a toy drum and wearing old beads around her neck, Doris transformed herself into the Jutt Indian Tribe. Dreamy and without any war-like powers, the Jutts brushed by us, beating their drums and chanting, "Hey yayaya yayaya yayaya. Hey yayaya yayaya yayaya." They escaped their foes by spraying magic dust (Mama's talcum powder) in the air. Once inhaled, the potion momentarily confused the Jutts' attackers, allowing the peaceful tribe just enough time to scurry for cover. Whenever any of the talcum powder landed on us, we laughed and fell out of our chairs.
Doris left and returned staring angrily in our direction. Then she raised her arms and spread her fingers, curling them as though poised to pounce. This scared Will. Doris had become the Phisters, a tall and murderous tribe. They were always at war. They had talon-like fingernails and used them to rip apart the flesh of their enemies, leaving blood and carnage in their wake. They specialized in ambush, making no sound beyond the ominous clicking of their beads.
Then "Tal" Colorado came on. Tal was a woman warrior of bionic strength, a fighter to the bone. Tal wore a red scarf tied in a band around her head with a white chicken feather rising above her ear. Seeing her, even the tall Phisters started trembling and running. They fled for good reason. Tal broke their talon-like fingernails. Kicking, screaming, and shouting a mad war cry, she also shot poisoned arrows. One by one the Phisters fell. Once her foes were beaten, Tal vanished. The Jutts, one or two anyway, ran back across the stage spraying more magic dust. Then, actress Doris collapsed in an exhausted swoon.
When Doris wasn't performing "The Magic Television" for Will and me, she was "Miss Doris," our teacher. In 1955, the elementary school nearby, Lynch Road Elementary, didn't have kindergarten, so Doris appointed herself as our teacher. Will and I were commanded to sit attentively as Miss Doris, wearing Mama's old high heels and holding a ruler in her hand, paced around the room barking out questions to which I repeated the verbatim responses she had drilled us on many times:
"What is a noun?"
"A noun is a person, place, or thing."
"Who invented the cotton gin?"
"What is Georgia's state bird?"
"Name two books from the Old Testament."
"Genesis and Exodus!"
Whenever I managed to get on a roll, I'd forget or mispronounce something.
"What is a proper noun?"
"A noun is a person, place, or thing," I repeated.
"No!" she said.
"A proper noun!" she said louder, while tapping her ruler in her hand.
I remained silent.
"A proper noun is the name of a particular person, place, or thing. I'm giving you an 'F' until you learn how to get your lesson!" she said sternly.
I started crying. Mama rushed in and scolded Doris. Then Mama tried to console me by pointing out that I was not in "real" school and that Doris was not a "real" teacher. She was real enough. I started first grade in 1956 at Lynch Road Elementary (later changed to Mamie J. Matthews). I had seen the school many times when riding with Daddy on his yellow bus. Lynch Road, a modest brick structure, was a new elementary school that opened in 1953. Unlike the five one-room country schools that it consolidated and replaced, Lynch Road had electricity and indoor plumbing. The new school had six classrooms (for grades one through six), a small library, and an all-purpose room that doubled as a cafeteria. The all-purpose room also had a small stage with a curtain. School-wide events were held in the room. The library had the school's only television. Some of our teachers watched As the World Turns during lunch hour. A forest of pine, oak, and persimmon trees surrounded the school.
Excluding our principal, Mr. Timothy T. Alexander, the teachers at Lynch Road were black women. Some had taught at the one-room country schools for years. These black women had been, for the most part, educated at various black colleges and universities in the South. They lived in Columbus proper, a world somewhat apart from ours. Yet, they drove a total of thirty or forty miles each day to teach us. Our teachers were dedicated and religious. Before we did anything else, we recited the Lord's Prayer each morning.
Our teachers were Christians, and some had a captivating sense of high style and grandeur. Each morning a group of us stood outside awaiting the arrival of Miss Dora Watson. She never shortchanged us. She drove a brand new Thunderbird. As she neared the school's curb, we jumped up and down in excitement, watching the white car gleaming in the Georgia sunlight as it slowly rolled to a stop. Emerging like a ballerina pirouetting out of a painted jewelry box, she smiled and greeted us. "Miss Watson, Miss Watson," we yelled, vying for her attention. We were pleased to see her tan face light up. She was a home economics teacher and gave us a quick inspection, instructing one of us to tie his shoes, then another to pull up her socks. Wearing colorful chemise-style dresses and high heels, she urged us to report to our homerooms and we followed her inside.
Excerpted from The Making of a Black Scholar by HORACE A. PORTER Copyright © 2003 by Horace A. Porter. Excerpted by permission.
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