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Long ago when southern plantations were plentiful and coloredsharecroppers still dreamed and the agrarian South was making asignificant contribution to the gross national product, small southerntowns were springing up almost daily with designs on becoming southernladies of commerce. Glen Allan, Mississippi was such a place and wasphysically positioned to achieve that goal. And although she had much ofwhat was required - a long lazy flowing lake framed with toweringcypress trees and cypress stumps, mansions with white imposing columnsthat seemed to reach for the sky - she never quite became the lady. Sheremained a country girl with a few southern charms that would hold ourattention while we called her our hometown.
Growing up as a young colored boy in Glen Allan, I didn't pay muchattention to her lack of industry or the slow decline of cotton as king.I just lived for Saturdays when Poppa would take me to Greenville, theQueen City of the Delta, where we would buy hot French bread and frozencustard ice cream.
When I think of Poppa today, I am reminded of a colored southern Buddha.He was robust, very imposing and his head was as clean and shiny as thatof an ancient Chinese god. Being a well-known and respected Baptistpreacher, he was looked to for his wisdom and in many instances servedas a go-between for the coloreds when problems arose involving whites.You could always count on Elder Young. I was too young to appreciate hisintervention, but I was old enough to understand and feel his love forme, his great-grandson. And every Saturday morning during the summer andearly fall, I could look forward to joining Poppa for outtraditionalride to Greenville.
Poppa and I were very close. I had been born in his house, as were mymother and her mother before her. My mother was unmarried and just outof high school when I came into this world, and when she later married,it was felt that I would be better off living with Poppa and his wife MaPearl. Even though I was not raised by my mother, she lived withinwalking distance of Poppa's house. I spent a great deal of time with heras well as with my other aunts and uncles, enjoying the benefits of anextended family. By the time I was five, Ma Pearl had become too sick totake care of me and I went to live with my great-aunt, Ma Ponk. Over theyears, my relationship with Poppa continued to grow even though I hadgone to live with Ma Ponk. I built my world around Poppa and heprotected me from the harsher realities of our complex socialenvironment.
Poppa was more than my best friend; he was also the essence ofChristmas. For colored children in Glen Allan, Christmas was the onlytime of year we got fresh fruit and toys. We each got one toy atChristmas, and today it seems amazing how those toys would last forever- or at least 364 days until Christmas came again. December 24 was a bignight for us, and we didn't care whether Santa Claus was white, green oryellow, just as long as he came down our chimney. Poppa always made surethat something special happened in our lives at Christmas. We'd goaround to his house early on Christmas morning and he'd have eggnog andbowls and bowls of fresh apples and oranges and pecans and walnuts - allthe things that we rarely saw during the rest of the year. On Christmasit seemed we stepped into a fantasy land of new toys and good food, andPoppa was at its center.
Getting to go to Greenville with Poppa on a Saturday morning was almostas exciting as Christmas. I'd be up early in the morning, long beforeseven o'clock. I didn't want to miss the Saturday trip. I'd grab the carrags from the screened porch and a broom from the storehouse and I'd domy best to clean the old '49 Buick that served as a small field carduring the week. I would work hard to get a good shine on the outsideand all the field dirt from the inside. I was going to Greenville, and Icouldn't wait. Poppa would never be ready as quickly as I expected him.He would always take his time.
Impatient to go, I'd ease into the front room, where Poppa would beputting the finishing touches on his shaving. He shaved his face andhead every day. There he'd sit in the big black leather parlor chair bythe door to the small bedroom, sharpening his razor on the long razorstrops hung by the door. I would watch in complete silence as the longblade of the razor, expertly handled, removed all signs of hair from hisface and head. Afterwards Poppa would rub alcohol all over his scalpwith a hot towel, then he would rub oil over his face and head, creatingthe shiny image of Buddha that I had come to love. With the shavingcomplete, I knew it wouldn't be long. Poppa would put on his best whiteshirt and black suit. He'd chain his gold pocket watch across his belly,then get his hat. While he was finishing this careful process ofdressing, I sat on the tall steps that led to the front porch. With myarms wrapped around my knees that were bent up to my chin, I would justsit and look as far as I could see. And my eyes could see no fartherthan Greenfield, a series of cotton farms and sharecroppers' homes.Because I could see no farther, I always thought Greenfield was the endof my world. I knew the colored colony was behind Greenfield, but Ididn't understand why I couldn't see it. The colony was mostly colored,a self-sufficient community established by blacks after the Civil Warand expanded through the purchase of land from the Illinois CentralRailroad.
At the screech of the screen door behind me, I jumped up and looked intoPoppa's face. There he stood with his hat in his hand and his ever-present pipe in his mouth. Together we walked down the steps from thefront garret (as he called the porch) to the '49 Buick parked by theside of the house. Poppa got in and turned the key. The Buick neverwould start, however, until Poppa got out again, raised the hood and didsome tinkering. Usually the tinkering didn't work either, and Poppa, asa last resort, would always hit something under the hood with achinaberry stick. Then the motor would leap to life and we'd back out ofthe yard and head toward Greenville.
Excerpted from Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored by Clifton L. Taulbert. Copyright © 1989 by Clifton L. Taulbert. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Chapter One Poppa, Black Buddha of the South
Chapter Two Long Brown Stockings and Colored Debutantes
Chapter Three Colored People, Just Passing Time
Chapter Four Luggage, Legs and Gorgeous Colored Women
Chapter Five Fear, and Hope: Childhood Memories
Chapter Six The Ice Man
Chapter Seven Colored Politics in a Small Southern Town
Chapter Eight Some Glad Morning, Some Glad Day, I'll Fly Away
Chapter Nine The End of a Season
Chapter Ten All in a Day's Work
Chapter Eleven Dreams, Trains and Other Things