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Beverly Smith, a chubby ten-year-old, paused. She had forgotten the words again. I wanted to shout out Easter day is here. Why couldn’t she remember her speech? Even I knew her six-line speech.
Instead of saying here, Beverly stuck her fingers in her mouth and twirled her thick, uncombed plaits with her free hand. She looked as though she was going to cry, but suddenly she began to giggle, much to the dismay of our Sunday School teacher, Miss Whitfield, and myself. Beverly’s completion of her speech was the only thing that stood in the way of my practicing my Easter speech and then joining my friends for a quick game of kickball before twilight covered the colored section of the east side of Little Rock, Arkansas.
It was the early 1960s and we were the only three people left in the Metropolitan Baptist Church, an ash-gray building as big as its name, and the centerpiece of our community of forty-plus families.
I was frustrated. All the other children had practiced their speeches and darted out of the church onto the streets to play before their parents called them in. It was not the kind of neighborhood where whole families sat down for dinner together, like Leave It to Beaver, because in the 1960s, many of the black adults worked two jobs. In my neighborhood, if your own parents didn’t tell you to come in, then some other adult would, and you had better obey.
I got tired of looking at Beverly, so my eyes moved to the wooden boards with black slip-in numbers listing the hymns from the previous week and the total attendance of Sunday School. I could hear the laughter and shouts filter in through the open windows of the church. From the voices I could tell my peers were playing the popular game of hide-and-seek, where the seeker sang, “Honey . . . honey . . . b . . . bar . . . b . . . bar . . . b. I can’t see you see . . . see you see. Last night, night before, twenty-four robbers were at my door. I got up, let them in, hit ’em in the head with a rolling pin.”
Miss Whitfield had saved me for last, because I had the longest speech: twenty-two lines. A speech that long was usually given to kids in the sixth grade, and never to an eight-year-old. I had memorized each line the first day I received the typewritten speech.
As Beverly started over and once again struggled for the words to her speech, my thoughts wandered to the upcoming Sunday. As my eyes left the wooden boards and moved toward the empty pulpit, I thought how proud my mama and daddy would be when I stood before the congregation and said my speech in my new Easter coat. Easter Sunday was the one time during the year I could count on Daddy being at church alongside my mother.
In my fantasy, church members would marvel not only at my presentation but at my new coat as well. They would question where the coat had come from and how my parents could afford such extravagance with three children. Little colored boys from my neighborhood were lucky to get a new shirt and possibly a clip-on tie for Easter or Christmas.
With a little coaxing from Miss Whitfield, Beverly finally finished her speech. I quickly jumped from the pew, raced to the front of the church, and said my speech in record time, every word perfectly clear and correct.
“That’s wonderful, Lynn, but slow down a little on Sunday. Nobody’s going anywhere until you finish.” Miss Whitfield smiled. I nodded and smiled back, taking note that my accuracy had removed the anguish her face had shown during Beverly’s struggle.
Easter Sunday 1964 finally arrived. After my bath, I raced into the tiny room I shared with my two younger sisters and saw the coat laid out on my twin bed. It was red, black, and green plaid with gold buttons. Daddy and I had picked the coat out together at Dundee’s Men’s Store. The coat had been on layaway since the day President Kennedy was shot in 1963. It’s strange how vividly I remember that rainy and dreary day and how I tried to contain my excitement about getting out of school early while all the teachers at Bush Elementary were in tears over the news they’d heard over the intercom system.
After I got home that day, Daddy and I walked in the cold to the edge of downtown Little Rock. At first I thought that maybe I was going to the President’s funeral when Daddy said he and his little man “Mike” were going to Dundee’s to buy new suit coats. I realized that this was not the case when Daddy handed over five one-dollar bills and the elderly white man gave him a gray payment book. The coat was the first piece of clothing that I could remember that hadn’t come from JCPenney’s or Kent Dollar Store and was the first piece of clothing I had picked out. Now Easter was here and I could wear my new jacket.
Mama had assembled it alongside a pair of black pants, white shirt, and red and black clip-on bow tie, and the shoes my daddy had polished to perfection sat under my bed.
I quickly put on my new clothes, and I could see my sisters, Anita and Zettoria, who were five and three, slip on new dresses over their freshly pressed hair. Anita had on a blue taffeta dress, and Shane (our nickname for Zettoria, since her name was so hard to pronounce) had on an identical one in pink. Their dresses were pretty but didn’t compare to my coat.
From the bathroom, Mama urged us to hurry, while Daddy called from the living room for us to gather for a final inspection before we left for Sunday School. My sisters grabbed their new black patent-leather pocketbooks and raced to the living room to greet Daddy. I peeked from the corner of our room to watch Daddy’s reaction.
“Look, Daddy. Don’t we look pretty?” Anita said as she twirled around. Shane giggled as she put her pocketbook strap to her mouth.
“You sure do look good. Look at my little girls. Shane, take the purse out of your mouth, baby,” Daddy said.
After Anita and Shane had accepted their compliments from Daddy, he called me in for inspection.
“Where is my little man? Come out here and let Daddy see that new coat,” he said.
I quickly buttoned up each of the three gold buttons and dashed to the living room for Daddy’s endorsement of my outfit.
“Look, Daddy. Look at me,” I said with excitement as I twirled around like my sisters had moments before. Suddenly Daddy’s bright smile turned into a disgusted frown. What was wrong? Didn’t he like my new coat? Had Easter been canceled?
“Come here. Stop that damn twirling around,” Daddy yelled.
I stopped and moved toward Daddy. He was seated on the armless aqua vinyl sofa. Before I reached him, he grabbed me and shouted, “Look at you. You fuckin’ little sissy with this coat all buttoned up like a little girl. Don’t you know better? Men don’t button up their coats all the way.” Before I could respond or clearly realize what I had done wrong, I saw Daddy’s powerful hands moving toward me. His grip was so quick and powerful that I felt the back of my prized coat come apart. A panic filled my tiny body when I saw his hands clutching the fabric. I began to cry as my sisters looked on in horror. I could hear Mama’s high heels clicking swiftly as she raced to the living room from the kitchen.
“Ben, what are you doing?” Mama asked.
“Shut up, Etta Mae. I’m taking care of this. Stop all that damn crying. Stop it now!” Daddy said to me.
I couldn’t stop crying as I saw one of the gold buttons roll under the metal television stand into the corner of room.
“If you don’t stop that crying, I’m gonna whip your little narrow ass,” Daddy warned as he released me.
Now I was crying harder than before. Snot dripped from my nose to the top of my lip as my mother inspected my badly torn coat.
“Come here, baby. Stop crying,” she said as she pulled me close to her chest.
“Let him go. Stop babying him,” Daddy said as he pulled me from my mother’s embrace.
“How is he ever gonna become a man with you babying him all the time!” he yelled.
Mama didn’t answer. She never did when he talked in this tone. She knew this routine too well.
“Stop that sniffling and clean your face, you little sissy,” he said to me. “What are you going to wear to church now?”
I didn’t answer, and I wiped my nose with the arm of my prized jacket and began crying once again.
“If you don’t stop that damn crying, I’m going to make you wear one of your sister’s dresses to church.”
I caught myself and stopped crying. Daddy meant what he said. I would be the laughingstock of the entire neighborhood. It wouldn’t matter that I had the longest and most difficult speech. I could see all my friends pointing and laughing at me.
I looked at the anger in Daddy’s eyes and the fear on my mother’s face as I blinked back tears. The small four-room clapboard house was silent with the exception of my sniffles. The living room suddenly felt too small, the ceiling too low. I looked around the room at my mother and sisters and then out the window, and watched the cars race past our house on East Twenty-first Street.
I don’t remember much after my mother pulled me back into the bedroom. I remember standing before the packed church that Easter Sunday and hearing my name being called and the older ladies of the church adorned in their Easter Sunday finery saying, “Go ’head, baby. Preach the word.”
I said my speech, each word of the twenty-two lines. I could hear the polite applause and “amens” that followed, as I, with my head held low, took my appointed seat on the pew with the other children from my Sunday School class, dressed perfectly in their finest clothes. I don’t remember what I wore that Easter Sunday or many Easters that followed. All I recall is that I wasn’t wearing a dress, and I remember what my daddy had said to me. I didn’t know what a sissy was and why Daddy despised them so. All I knew was that I was determined never to be one.
My name is not Mike. Not Michael. It is Everette Lynn Harris, but my daddy called me Mike when he was proud of me. I often wondered why I wasn’t named Mike, but since he was the only one in my family who called me that, I figured Mama had won the battle of names when I was born during the early summer of 1955, two years before my hometown would become famous not for the state’s natural beauty, but rather for trying to keep nine colored students out of their prized Little Rock Central High.
The more I thought about it, I figured Daddy called me Mike because he thought Lynn was a girl’s name, and Everette, a name my Great-Aunt Mary had made up, didn’t sound tough either. But I loved my middle name, and that’s what my mother, sisters, and cousins always called me. When friends at school would ask why I spelled Lynn like a girl, I would reply, “Because that’s the way my mama spelled it.”
Maybe Daddy called me Mike because of Michael Stewart, one of my childhood friends whose father was one of Daddy’s running buddies. Whenever Daddy called me Mike, he would always have a look of pride on his face, so I didn’t really mind.
My daddy, Ben Odis Harris, was a towering, slightly overweight red-boned man with a talent for painting signs and drinking, which was when his other talent showed, beating up people smaller than he was. His favorite punching bags were my mother and me.
He was loved and adored by most of the kids in our tight-knit neighborhood of working-class colored people, and was affectionately called Uncle Ben by neighborhood children who shared no lineage with my sisters and me. Maybe it was because Daddy always appeared good-natured when he walked or drove around the streets of East Twenty-first, Rock, and Commerce. Daddy would often gather up children for trips to the Sweden Crème on Main Street for ice cream during sticky summer months. Maybe they liked him so much because sometimes when Daddy drank he was funny, and acted like a big child himself before he became violent.
Daddy filled my own life with fear for as long as I could remember. Fear that I talked too much, read too much, and couldn’t perform simple tasks like getting his water cold enough, or that I would forget to wake him when he went to sleep in front of the black-and-white television. After all, as he often reminded me, I was a poor excuse for a son.
During the first twelve years of my life, I found very few ways to please my father. It didn’t matter that most of my teachers loved me and that I made straight A’s and only got B’s in citizenship because I talked too much at school, partly because I was afraid to talk at home. Daddy did seem proud when I came home dirty and bloody from street football games. It didn’t matter that I was usually the last one picked for a team.
His moods would change in a positive way when he had steady work painting signs or driving the local sanitation truck or when he wasn’t drinking his syrup-colored liquor. When there was no work and he was drinking, a storm would settle down upon my mother and me and we would wait, in terror, for it to pass.
Sometimes I felt he loved me. Once he took me fishing at a small pond behind the Arkansas state capitol. Another time he took me with him when he was driving a truckload of bananas to St. Louis. My sisters wanted to go, but Daddy said no, “Just me and my little man.” We slept in the truck’s private compartment, and ate cheeseburgers with ice-cold milk at the many truck stops along the highway between Little Rock and St. Louis. I could tell Daddy was having fun on the trip because he called me Mike the whole time and he would have the biggest smile on his face when other truckers asked him if I was his son. I remember the sleeping compartment of the truck smelled bad and was uncomfortable, but I didn’t mind. I was with my daddy.
Times like that trip were short-lived, and most of the time I felt he hated me. Sometimes even horrible memories play over and over in my mind, evoked by things I read or see in movies or on talk shows.
As a child I loved to read, but I had no desire to be a writer. I wanted to be a teacher. Once, when I was eleven, I was playing school with the neighborhood kids on our front porch. Daddy came storming out of the house and shouted in front of all the children assembled, “Only sissy boys want to be schoolteachers.” Then he kicked all my books and fake report cards off the porch and gave me an I dare you to go get them look. He didn’t know that even at that young age I knew that education was going to get me away from him.
School and the Little Rock Public Library became my refuge. There I could numb the pain and fear I felt every time I entered our house and knew that he was there. Even when I’d forgotten the whippings he’d give me for just looking at him the wrong way, I would still worry about the late-night beatings he would give my mother.
One night I was awakened from a deep sleep by my mother’s screams and crying. He was beating her, and when I tried to call out her name, nothing would come from my mouth. I thought he was killing her, the screams were so loud. I felt I had to do something, but every time I tried to call out her name or move, nothing happened. I was paralyzed.
Finally the beating stopped. I could hear my mother’s quiet sobs and Daddy’s loud snoring, but I still couldn’t speak. Soon I felt my body could move once again, and I got out of bed, fell to my knees, and prayed silently that God would protect Mama, return my voice, and allow me to sleep.
I did sleep, and by the next morning my voice had returned. When I washed up and entered the kitchen, my mother was cooking breakfast as though the previous night had never happened. Looking at her, I realized that what Grandma always said about the power of prayer was indeed true. Since that night I have rarely missed a single night of getting on my knees and praying for my mama’s safety and a restful sleep.
My mother, Etta Mae, is a strong-willed woman who during most of my youth worked two jobs, went to Business College, and still found time to serve as president of the Bush Elementary PTA and den mother to my Cub Scout troop. Mama is a stoutly built woman with no grand notion of her beauty, sable-brown skin, and sleepy eyes that sparkle when she smiles.
Even when I look at her today, and though time has passed for the both of us, she looks the same. She was the second child, and the first daughter, born to Robert and Bessie Allen Williams. A few years after her birth, my grandmother and grandfather divorced and my grandmother remarried Teroy Gaines, whom we called Paw-Pa and who was the only grandfather I would know. Paw-Pa, also a divorcé, brought to the marriage a son, Roy, and a daughter, Jessie Lee. Soon after my grandparents’ marriage, they had a child together, Arthur Lee, the baby of the family. Theirs was a close-knit family, from what I could see. Today my mother will not hesitate to call her big brother when a problem arises, and her sister—and my cherished Aunt Gee (aka Jessie Lee)—are not only sisters but best friends and traveling companions.
My mother is a gentle and kind woman, the most humble and noble woman I’ve ever known. I remember how she would gently rub the hurt from my body when it was covered with welts from Daddy’s switch or belt. Getting sick was something I looked forward to as a child. Mama would love me back to health by rubbing my body with Vick’s Vaporub and making me lemon-laced tea. I felt so loved and special that I didn’t even mind the spoon filled with castor oil I had to take before bedtime. When my sisters and I were ill, Mama didn’t care what Daddy had to say and would allow us to sleep in their queen-size bed and hold us tight like we were still babies.
On countless nights she woke my sisters and me and led us from our house, two blocks around the corner to my grandmother’s house, when Daddy’s beatings and drinking became too much for even her to bear. But she loved Daddy deeply despite his many faults.
My family was poor, though not welfare poor, and there were times when I thought I was the only one who knew. Our house was four small rooms, and it wasn’t as nice as some of the homes on neighboring streets or the large white mansion that our landlords the Pettyways owned. I’d catch a glimpse of the beautiful home with the marble foyer and polished hardwood floors when Daddy would sometimes allow me to take the fifty-dollar monthly rent to Mrs. Pettyway. Though very high yellow, the Pettyways were colored, and it helped me to realize that being colored didn’t necessarily mean poor.
But if it hadn’t been for Mama’s hard work, we would have been on welfare and would most likely have lived in the projects. We had some cousins on Daddy’s side that lived in the projects, and to me it wasn’t so bad. They had playgrounds, recreation centers, and all their houses were made of brick. As a child I always dreamed of living in a brick house, and it didn’t matter where it was.
Daddy’s beatings caused me to retreat into my own silent world, which was probably worse than the physical scars. Sure I spoke, but only when I wasn’t worried about how I should act or what I should say.
In my silence I lived in a make-believe world that provided me great comfort. In this world I lived in a brick house and had a mommy and daddy who loved each other and me deeply and dearly. It was a home where I got a hug and kiss from both of my parents as I headed off to school carrying a leather book satchel, a Jetsons lunchbox filled with my grandma’s German chocolate cake, fried chicken tucked neatly between two pieces of light bread, and a thermos filled with ice-cold chocolate milk.
Inside my head, I had a life filled with friends who took pride in our friendship and who would pick me first for sandlot football and dodgeball despite my size.
I retreated as often as possible, because I knew what was waiting when I returned to the real world. Daddy’s abuse sent me the chilling warning that the world wouldn’t take too kindly to a sissy boy whom even a father couldn’t love. When I look back, I realize my childhood was stolen just as it was getting started.
The dual beatings of my mother and me became commonplace, with lapses occurring if we stayed away at Grandma’s for a couple of days. Daddy would come to Grandma’s and beg both her and Mama to change their minds and give him one more chance. When we would return, Daddy would become briefly what he should have been all along—a good husband and a good father.
When he was being responsible and generous, he would pile us all in the family station wagon and take us out for a drive to the Dairy Freeze in Granite Mountain for hamburgers and chocolate ice-cream cones. The hamburgers were five for a dollar, and sometimes Daddy would buy an order of french fries for my sisters and me to share. We would leave the drive-in and go to the Little Rock Airport and watch the planes take off and land. He could also be generous around the holidays, especially Christmas. My sisters and I would really clean up with toys and clothes. Of course, his kindness never lasted long. Looking back, I realize his generosity was dependent on how much he was working or how much he was drinking.
Growing up I loved the holidays, which meant family gatherings at my Grandma’s, where I knew I would get an extra dose of love, like an extra Christmas present under the tree. My extended family knew what I was going through with Daddy and wanted to make sure I knew I was loved.
Even though she had over twenty grandkids, my Grandma always managed to put a silver dollar in my hand when nobody was looking. A deeply religious woman, Grandma made the best German chocolate cake in the world. Grandma’s house was the place the family would also gather to greet our relatives from Michigan who often drove for days to see us during the summer. Those visits were cause for Grandma and Mama to cook big meals for everyone, and top it all off with watermelon and homemade ice cream. Grandma would allow my sisters, cousins, and me to take turns cranking the ingredients together in a wooden bucket. Grandma convinced us that our help made the ice cream taste better than store-bought ice cream any day.
During the holidays I knew there’d be a chance I would get a chance to spend some time with my Aunt Gee. She always made me feel like she was so happy to see me. Aunt Gee made me feel like I was the only little boy in the world and would smother me with hugs and kisses just like Grandma would smother her chicken with rich gravy. In many ways, Aunt Gee was and has remained a second mother to me. One of my few childhood memories before entering the first grade is of a toy doctor’s set that Aunt Gee bought me when I was about fours years old. She’d given it to me one Christmas and I paraded around my Grandma’s house with the black bag like I was on my way to perform surgery. Aunt Gee’s husband, my Uncle Charles, was in the Air Force, and so she didn’t always live in Little Rock or nearby where I could visit them often. When I was in the sixth grade, Uncle Charles was stationed in Spain for three years. I thought I was going to die and cried for days when I found out it would be a long time before I could see my favorite aunt, uncle, and cousins. Aunt Gee had four boys, and I always felt like Kennie, Charles Jr.,Tony, and Carlos were more like brothers than cousins to me. Of course, we argued and teased each other, but never for long.
My mother’s older brother, Uncle James, also treated me like I was one of his boys. He’s a handsome man with a contagious smile and an infectious laugh. When he walked into Grandma’s house he was like fireworks exploding on a summer night, and that made me very happy. Uncle James would look at me, smile, and say, “Come here, boy,” and I would race into his large arms, where he would pick me up and twirl me around until I was so dizzy I couldn’t stand up. I knew Uncle James was different from my daddy because I never saw him hit or talk ugly to his wife, Aunt Hattie. He always went to church with his family, and to his children’s sporting events. At times he was just like a big kid who loved his mother and sisters dearly.
There was one thing I hated about the holidays: They ended, and I knew I would have to return home to Daddy.
Around age twelve, most of the boys I knew were interested in liking girls and making the junior high football team. Football and girls were on my mind too, but so were death and going to heaven. I had heard, and Lord only knows where, that if a child died before age twelve, he or she would go straight to heaven. No questions asked. And even though I didn’t know much about heaven, I knew it had to be better than the terror I faced daily at 520 East Twenty-first Street.
My main concern about heaven was that my mother and grandmother might not be there right away. Somebody had to stay and look after my sisters, which now included the addition of my new baby sister, Jan. When Mama was pregnant, I prayed for a little brother who might make life easier, and I would no longer be the only boy in a house full of women. I didn’t count Daddy, since he was now staying away from home more than usual. I wasn’t completely disappointed that I had a new baby sister, though, because I felt a special bond with Jan.
I had another fear about going to heaven, which was never having the chance to go out with Rose Crater, the first girl who made my heart rattle with adolescent romantic thoughts every time I saw her. Rose was a beautiful, butter-colored girl. One spring day I saw her crossing the street in front of Booker Junior High, and I could feel excitement swell inside my stomach. I knew who she was because she was the daughter of A. C. Crater Sr., the head football coach at Booker. Her mother was a secretary at Carver Elementary, and the Crater family was considered middle class. She had an older brother, A. C. Jr., who was smart and an athlete. Rose was one of two seventh-graders on the varsity cheerleading squad, and she had no earthly idea that I existed. But I thought maybe if I died it would be big news because I was so young, and she might wonder who I was. On the other hand, I’d never get to see her again. It was my first love affair, and I was in conflict.