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Gulfport to Gotham
When I listen to Stevie Wonder's brilliant song about New York City, "Living for the City," my mind goes back to Mama. You'll remember that in the song, when the singing stops, a small drama begins: A Mississippi native takes the bus heading north, arriving in the midst of the great metropolis. Getting off the bus, he exclaims, "New York, just like I pictured it, skyscrapers and everything!"
I imagine my mother as that Mississippian.
When she took the bus from Gulfport, Mississippi, in 1964, I was with her, inside her womb.
That's where my story begins . . .
My mama, Joyce Marie Roberts, was stunningly beautiful. At eighteen, she exuded energy and confidence. But she also harbored a burdensome secret: she was pregnant. Her mother was a devout Christian who raised her and her brother and two sisters in the St. James Baptist Church of Gulfport, Mississippi, where the pastor preached fire and brimstone. Being pregnant was not part of the Baptist Church plan.
Mama had been a dutiful daughter, helping her mother, who worked six, sometimes seven days a week as a maid. Her daddy had a good job as a longshoreman. But my grandfather was known for drinking. As a result, Mama's family was always scuffling.
Mama shined in school. She was far more than just a green-eyed beauty; she was also a gifted athlete, excelling at basketball and track. Later, I heard stories about how she invigorated the pep squad with her tireless energy, and how she led the school band as they marched through downtown Gulfport during homecoming weekend. From all accounts, she loved life.
Mama was also a JamesBrown fanatic. When Brown came to Mississippi to perform, she perched herself in the front row, and as J.B. broke into his "mashed potato," slipping and sliding from one side of the stage to the other, Mama held on to his leg and wouldn't let go. Lord, Mama could party, and she loved to laugh. While still in high school, she fell in love with one of the school's star basketball players, a boy I'll call T.
After graduating from Thirty-third Avenue High School, she worked at the Gulfport Laundry and Gates Cleaners, helping her mother with household expenses. But Mama always had an adventuresome spirit, and an advertisement in the local paper caught her eye. An employment agency was seeking young women as sleep-in maids in private homes in New York City. Displaying her independent streak and her courage, Mama signed up with the agency, and caught a bus up to New York City. Unfortunately, she was only there briefly; an injury sustained in a car accident sent her back home only a few months later. Upon her return to Gulfport, she and T renewed their romance. The result was my conception.
Mama didn't want to stay in Gulfport and face the scandal her pregnancy would cause. She didn't want her mother to know her condition. So she went back to the agency that had originally sent her to New York and took a job up north on Long Island, working again as a maid. But she also knew she needed to find a man to marry, to make me legitimate. She met a man named Scott, a West Indian, who wanted to get married to stay in America. So out of convenience, Joyce married Scott, something I didn't learn until I was an adult.
Months later, she realized she had made a mistake. Homesick and lonely for her own mother, Mama decided to go back to Gulfport, alone, to have her baby.
Gotham to Gulfport
When the bus pulled into Gulfport, Mama saw her mother waiting. Mama was exhausted from the long journey, and she was plagued by doubt and shame. Seven months pregnant, she was as big as a barn. What would her mother say?
After embracing, her mother held her gaze, telling her, "I always knew the truth. Your daddy told me. He had heard it through your friends. Believe me, it doesn't matter. We love you and we're happy you're home. Jesus said that he didn't come to judge. Well, if he's not in the judging business, neither am I."
And with that, Mama wept in her mother's arms.
I was born on September 13, 1964, in Gulfport, a little over two weeks after the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, led by Fannie Lou Hamer, appeared on the floor of the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City to challenge the state's all-white representation.
After my birth, Mama and I lived with her mother.
T, the eighteen-year-old boy who'd fathered me, came 'round to see Mama, hoping to repair their relationship. They had several dates and, to some degree, they continued to be attracted to each other. T accompanied Mama to the movies, to the candy store, even to the doctor when it was time for my checkup. T didn't know that Mama was already married. When he found out, accompanying my mother to see a lawyer about a divorce, he was floored. In the end, Mama went her way, and T went his.
In 1965, a year after I was born--the same year that Martin Luther King Jr. and his supporters walked down U.S. 80 from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery--my Mama met Emory Garnell Smiley. The march took four days and changed the course of American history. My mother's introduction to Emory Smiley would change my family history.
Mama first met Garnell, the man I would know as my father, on a double date with a girlfriend. Garnell and the other man were in the air force, stationed in nearby Biloxi. That night, at the drive-in, Mama and Emory Garnell Smiley sat together in the backseat.
As the second movie began, the couple in front started to neck.
"Would you like to walk to the refreshment stand?" Smiley asked, noticing Mama's discomfort.
"Yes," Mama replied gratefully.
After buying Mama a candy bar, he led her to a bench behind the last row of cars.
"We could just sit here and talk," he suggested.
"How long have you been in the air force?" asked Mama.
"You come from around here?"
"No, from Georgia. Little town called Midway."
"So, your daddy in the armed services too?"
"No, Daddy's a truck driver for a pulp mill. Worked there his whole life."
"You've lived there your whole life?"
"Yep, until I went to New York."
"You lived in New York City?"
"Me, too," said Mama. "Been there twice."
"I wasn't too crazy about New York," admitted Garnell.
"Me either. What made you go up there?"
"Oh, I don't know. You hear about the big city and you think you better see it. You think you're missing something."
"That's how I felt," said Mama.
"I worked at a hospital in Brooklyn as an orderly. I was looking for some formal training that would get me a better job, but they weren't interested in training. So I joined the air force. Right now I'm training to repair planes. What were you doing up in New York?"
"I was working as a nanny. Then I went back a second time to . . . well, to have my baby."
"I didn't know you had a baby."
"Well, you know now," says Joyce.
"I love babies. Boy or girl?"
"Boy. His name is Tavis."
"Good name. And his daddy?"
"Not really in my life right now. I'm not sure why I'm telling you all this," said Mama, "except I'm comfortable talking to you. You're easy to talk to."
"I feel the same about you," said Garnell. "I like how you don't hide things. So many women feel like they gotta play a man."
"I like that you're serious-minded, Garnell."
"My daddy took responsibility for his family. He's taught me to do the same. I was raised an only child, but not long ago Mama and Daddy adopted two orphan girls and cared for them like their own. Now they're my sisters."
"Your mama work?"
"She's a beautician. Works at a funeral parlor. She fixes the hair of ladies who've passed on. She also plays piano in the parlor."
"My daddy works at the dock. Makes good money; but on payday, you can't get him out of the bar room."
"I know what that's like. On the same property as our house, Daddy built a juke joint with his own hands. Calls it Smiley's Place. Nothing fancy: milk crates as chairs, Mama's homemade fish and chicken. We have an old jukebox filled with the blues. But folks love to come over after work to drink and relax. At night, there's dancing."
"I love to dance," said Mama.
"I'd love to dance with you," Garnell replied, surprising himself with his boldness.
She looked in his eyes and saw reflected in them a man of purpose. Garnell Smiley conveyed an air of trust; something about him said, I'll be loyal to you no matter what.
The next year, 1966, the year Dr. King initiated his Chicago Campaign for open housing, Stokely Carmichael promoted Black Power, and James Meredith was shot in the back by a sniper during a civil-rights march in Mississippi, my mother married Emory Garnell Smiley.
When I was three, the air force sent Garnell, my daddy, to Southeast Asia.
Mama had a newborn son, Emory--we called him Garnie. "The boys are going to miss you, Garnell," she told Dad.
"I'll be back before you know it. Don't you worry. Nothing's gonna get in the way of me getting back to my family," he promised.
At times I saw my mother crying during Dad's absence. Nothing--then or now--has upset me more. One time she began to cry when we were visiting a strange house. Mama and Big Mama, as I call my grandmother, were standing in front of a large wooden box that had been placed in the middle of the room. Mama and Big Mama were crying together.
"What's that box?" I asked a man in a dark suit.
"You call it a casket," he whispered in my ear.
"What's a casket?" I asked.
"Where they put dead people. Those who have gone home to the Lord."
"Who died?" I wanted to know.
"Your uncle Curtis. Your mother's brother."
Years later, I found out that my uncle had been living in Los Angeles. His girlfriend had betrayed him for another man, and the other man had shot my uncle to death. The story gave me chills.
The best time to sit with my granddaddy, Paw Paw, was nighttime. The fireflies fluttered; somewhere in the distance an owl would hoot. Big Mama complained that Paw Paw was always drinking. I wasn't sure what drinking meant; all I knew was that I loved being with Paw Paw as he told me stories. I loved sitting in Paw Paw's lap on his rocking chair, rocking back and forth. His breath smelled sour and funny, but I didn't mind. He would puff on his corncob pipe and sip from his whiskey glass and speak in a honey-combed voice that was easy and slow.
"You see, son," he said one night, pointing his finger to the juke joint across the street, "over there is the bar room. You hear the women around here complaining about that bar room. They ain't wrong. I know I spend too much time up in there. But a man's got to have his peace of mind. A man's got to have his pleasure. Working down on the docks all day ain't no pleasure. It's good work, son, steady work, but it's sweat-and-blood work. You learn a lot about life on the docks. You'll see a lazy man who finds a way to get outta work; and you'll see a stand-up man who does the work he's paid to do. Well, I'm one of those stand-up men. But when the work is done and you're bone-tired, well, the bar room is a good place where men can go to wind down before going home to the ladies. There's fighting men in the bar room--you don't want nothing to do with them--but then you have your thinking men in the bar room. See, son, Paw Paw is a thinker. He's thinking about the life he's led and why your life is gonna be a whole lot better. He's thinking about how you've got a big, beautiful world in front of you. He's thinking that things are getting better all the time. And you're part of the better, Tavis. You're what's making this mean ol' world better."
And with that, he kissed me on the cheek, took another sip of whiskey, and went on rocking.
Not long afterward, I could see in Mama's face that she was worried.
"Death is frightening," she told Big Mama as they stood at the kitchen sink cleaning up the dishes from dinner. "The way Curtis was killed. The way Daddy's brother dropped dead out in the fields. Death just seems to come out of nowhere and swoop you up. And now Daddy's sick. I'm scared to death."
"We just gotta pray, baby," Big Mama told her. "We gotta pray night and day."
That night, I heard Paw Paw coughing so loudly it frightened me. I ran to my mother's room, where I overheard Mama's prayers. "Dear Lord," she said, "if my daddy dies, I'm giving my life to you. With all this death around me, I know I need you, Lord. I can't wait no longer. I need you in my life. I need to surrender my soul to you."
The next morning, Paw Paw was taken to the hospital.
"Will Paw Paw be home tonight?" I asked.
"No, baby," said Big Mama. "I know you love your Paw Paw, but Paw Paw is not feeling right. The doctors need to look after him."
"Will they have to put him in a casket?" I asked, tears rolling down my face.
"We pray not," Big Mama said, and hugged me. "We pray God will deliver him."
"It's his drinking," I heard my mother tell Big Mama. "All that drinking poisoned him."
At the end of the week, I found myself standing before another casket. My eyes were wet with tears as I watched it lowered into the ground. I heard my mother praying, "God, I am yours. I surrender my life to you."
Paw Paw was gone.
From the Hardcover edition.