Come By Here: My Mother's Life

Come By Here: My Mother's Life

by Clarence Major


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Lavish praise for come by here
"With elegant simplicity and uncommon wisdom, Clarence Major gives us not just the truth of his mother's life but the unspoken truth behind the lie of color in the American story. A compelling narrative."
— Rilla Askew, author, Fire in Beulah
"A brilliant rendering of a rich and eventful life. With creative insight, love, and admiration, Major shows us how in family life down through the generations, race really matters."
— Andrew Billingsley, author, Climbing Jacob's Ladder:
The Enduring Legacy of African American Families
Critical acclaim for Clarence Major
"Clarence Major has a remarkable mind and the talent to match."
— Toni Morrison, Nobel Laureate
"One of America's most gifted and versatile writers."
— Library Journal

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780471415183
Publisher: Turner Publishing Company
Publication date: 04/03/2002
Pages: 270
Product dimensions: 5.88(w) x 8.88(h) x 0.98(d)

About the Author

CLARENCE MAJOR is an established voice in American letters: a 1999 National Book Award Finalist and acclaimed author of twelve books of poetry, eight novels, and several nonfiction works. Major, who has been the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships, is currently a professor of modern American literature and creative writing at the University of California at Davis.

Read an Excerpt

Come By Here

My Mother's Life
By Clarence Major

John Wiley & Sons

ISBN: 0-471-41518-9

Chapter One

The train's chugging put me to sleep. I was still asleep when the train crossed the Mason-Dixon line at the first peek of daylight. With my eyes closed, I shifted in my seat, turning away from the window toward the man next to me.

Then, fully conscious, I opened my eyes. I felt a sudden fearful chest tightening as I sat up and looked around. The man next to me was white. True, he was the same man who'd sat down beside me just before we pulled out of Chicago last night. But his whiteness now was so stark.

I suddenly realized that I was in an all-white car. The two colored ladies, with peanut butter sandwiches in wax paper, three seats up, and the elderly colored couple, up farther near the door, were now gone.

When you were traveling from the North into the South, at the Mason-Dixon line, the conductor came through the cars and told the Negroes not already sitting in the "colored" car to go there. If you were asleep he'd gently shake your shoulder and nod to the rear. But the conductor hadn't awakened me.

I sat there thinking over what had happened. Apparently, to his eyes, I was a white woman traveling alone. The experience was funny and sad. I'd always had a harder time passing for black than I'd had passing for white. My mother was black and her way of life was what I knew as my way. I knew very little about my birth father and hiswhite way of life-if there was such a thing. Whenever I'd let myself start to think about him, an odd and dull pain, like the one in my chest now, stopped me.

But I could think about what was happening to me now. I was having my first experience of being white. And I felt the privilege that came with it. From that moment on I changed. In time, I came to believe that when I was taken to be white I was white. When I was seen as black, I was black.

I was like one of those chameleon lizards I saw on the rocks around our house when I was growing up. Except my color didn't change-people's perception of me changed, depending on the situation. That was how elusive these categories came to be for me.

As that train moved farther south, moving toward Atlanta, each clickety-clickety was taking me back to my miserable life as Clarence's wife. I looked out at the sunny landscape of farmland. And I sat there thinking back on my life, trying to figure out who I was, and who I was becoming.

I was a simple country girl who discovered excitement and promise in the big city, Atlanta, and now in an even bigger city, Chicago. But who I was before leaving Dublinville was still clear in my memory. That girl was put quickly through changes once she was living in the city as a grownup. Everything moved faster here. Before Atlanta and Chicago my dreams were simple. The events in a typical day were also simple and I knew pretty much what each day was likely to bring. City life, though, as exciting as it was, complicated and made everything unpredictable. Discovering the faster pace and more varied day-by-day life of Atlanta challenged me in new ways. They gave me new hope for a fuller, more promising life than I had thought possible.

I closed my eyes. While growing up in Dublinville I knew my sisters wanted to fall in love, marry and have children, to be good wives and good mothers. I remembered vaguely wanting these things but I wanted more. I couldn't remember a time when I didn't believe I could have more. All I had to do was go after what I wanted. That was what Pa always taught me. From an early age I knew I was not like most of the other girls I knew both in my hometown and in boarding school in Athens.

I wanted to improve myself. I'd grown up with the impression that we were better off than most colored families in our town, and we were, but once I moved to Atlanta I saw black families with the kind of material wealth I'd thought only white folks had. It wasn't that I wanted to be wealthy. I wanted to improve who I was as a person, and the city struck me as the place to do it. I wanted to be useful in the world, to live a fuller life.

I also wanted to feel more secure and I came to associate security with the city because that was where the jobs were. If I could earn enough money to buy my own sense of security and independence, then I would not have to ever again be dependent on a man or anybody who might let me down when I most needed help. I knew now, as I sat there on the train with my eyes closed, that I was as deeply disappointed in myself as I was in my husband. I also knew that I had associated him with the possibilities of the big city. Years later I would understand that my attraction to him had everything to do with his flash of self-confidence, his air of independence. These were qualities I rarely saw in other black men. But I couldn't help wondering if his attraction to me had more to do with my skin color than with me myself as the person I was and the person I was becoming.

The train was pulling into Atlanta and I was still deep in thought. I remembered a time when I was five. The old white man Mr. Egmont stopped in front of our house. He sat atop a squeaky wagon pulled by a tired-looking horse. It was his normal stop to sell watermelons and corn. I was outside playing.

After giving me a peach, Mr. Egmont patted the top of my head. As I was eating the peach he said, Child, when you grow up, you go up north where you can be white. You don't have to stay here and be colored all your life. People here know you colored but, on sight, to a stranger you whiter than I am. And although his words were confusing to me at the time, I never forgot them.

One of the first things a small child, black or white, learned in the Deep South was that there were these two kinds of people-black and white-and that they were to be kept apart. They were supposed to be two rigidly separated worlds. But it was confusing for me as soon as I became conscious of myself as black, I became conscious of myself also as white. No matter how friendly white people were, we were taught that they drew the line when it came to us. I didn't know why. It was just the way life was.

Not that some white people weren't friendly. The white family up the road from us, on the other side, was close to my family. Their name was Knight. They had three children-two boys and a girl, Eddie, Lee and Claudio. They were around the ages of my older brothers and sisters.

I used to go up to the Knights' house all the time, although they didn't have any little children my age. I liked them, and Mr. and Mrs. Knight were crazy about me. Mama and Pa used to get water from their well after ours went bad. From time to time we would give them fruit Mama canned. And they were always giving us things.

At age six, I was getting ready to go to school for the first time. And Pa took me aside and said, Inez, children will tell you that I am not your father. He said, Don't believe them, and don't let them upset you. They don't know any better. A real father, he said, is one who loves you and cares about you. That is a true father. So, I am your true father-just remember that when they start teasing you. I didn't yet know about my birth father, a white man whose family had a long and documented history in Georgia going back to Colonial times.

The colored schoolhouse stood down the hill from the colored Baptist church, called Mt. Zion Baptist. Pa had built both. The little two-room schoolhouse-called the Harriet Beecher Stowe School-that I started going to when I was six had only a few wooden benches for the children to sit on, and a simple table for the teacher.

The children sat on the benches facing the teacher, with a blackboard on the wall behind her. The two rooms joined. One was used for us smaller kids and the other for the older ones. Whenever possible there were two teachers, but it was hard to keep regular teachers there because the pay was so low. Mine was Miss Edna Smith.

I always remembered Pa's words. He'd told me the truth. And he was right. The older kids did tease me about the way I looked, and about that white man, Mr. Webster, being my so-called real father. They said, Why you think you got straight hair? Look at you! Why you think you so pink-looking? They wouldn't let me join in their games. And it was a very confusing and painful time. They pulled my hair and hit me-just because I looked different.

My sister, Brenna, tried to fight them off, but she couldn't be with me all the time. They said I had "good hair"-and that was too bad for me. And because my hair was long and straight, it was easy to pull.

But with Pa's little lecture I felt ready for them. I tried to take their talk without letting it get me down completely. Yet it hurt-watching them holding hands and dancing in a circle and singing songs-"Little Liza Jane" and "Little Sally Walker" and such.

They jumped rope and sang count-out songs like "Shoo Turkey"-singing Did you go downtown? Yes ma'am. Did you get any eggs? Yes ma'am. Did you bring them home? Yes ma'am. Did you cook any bread? Yes ma'am. Did you save me some?

And they skipped and sang "Just from the Kitchen." With a handful of biscuits. Shoo fly loo. Oh Miss Mary. Shoo fly loo. Fly away over yonder. Shoo fly loo. And they played "Go In and Out the Window," too. I wanted so much to play and sing with them.

But I had Pa to go to for comfort-although he couldn't go to school with me to protect me from the kids. I loved Pa. He was good to me and I took com-fort in being with him. He was my retreat.

Just after we moved to the new house he was planting a lot of new trees, pecan and fig, pear and plum, and apple trees, then grape vines, on our land. And I followed him around. He liked having me about. When he looked back, I was always there. He'd dig holes, then he'd let me come along behind him, and drop seeds into the holes. That became my job.

One time after the trees started growing, we noticed that one tree was coming up with two different kinds of leaves on it. As it turned out, I had accidentally put apple and pear tree seeds in the same hole. The two trees blended together and bore strange fruit-inedible, but interesting to look at. It was my tree. And rather than getting mad at me for the mistake, Pa, too, liked the peculiar tree, and called it my special tree.

In time, Miss Edna Smith gave up teaching, and became a private nurse. Better pay. She worked full time nursing Mrs. Daphne Webster-the mother of Corrie Webster. Mrs. Daphne had crippling arthritis.

This was the year I was thirteen. On my way to town one day, I was walking by the Webster house at the edge of town when I saw Miss Edna sweeping the front porch.

She waved to me and I waved back. Then she came out into the yard and called me over and said, Inez, you stop here on your way back. I want to see you about something. Then she lowered her voice and said, I have something I want to give you.

When I got back, Miss Edna met me in the yard and handed me an envelope. She said, Now, Inez, these are pictures of you when you were an infant. You take these pictures and keep them in a safe place. Don't tell anybody I gave them to you. You hear?

I thanked her, and on the way home, I looked at them. In the pictures, I was a beautiful baby. I hadn't believed that Mr. Webster was my birth father. It was at this point that my resistance to what the kids at school had said was challenged. Still, I was puzzled by these pictures coming out of his house. While every-body in town knew about my situation, nobody, black or white, openly talked about it.

What can I say about Corrie Webster? He was involved with Mama before he was married. His mother and father were descendants of plantation owners. After dropping out of the University of Georgia, in Athens, in his first semester, he returned to Dublinville and before long started his secret romance with Mama, a married woman.

When his father, Jestus, died, in 1923, Corrie Webster's mother, Daphne, became head of the family. Corrie and his brother, Edward, inherited the responsibility of running the farm. They mainly grew cotton. Their sister, Miss Minnette, married a local man, and stayed close to her family. The brothers had about fifty Negroes living and working shares on the farm-which was behind the family mansion.

Some years later, Corrie Webster married Nancy Ferguson, also from an old Marietta plantation family. Nancy's grandfather had been a state senator and a gentleman farmer. Corrie Webster had three sons-Melvin, Owens and Russell-by Nancy Ferguson. Corrie and his family lived in the Webster family mansion with his mother, Old Lady Daphne. Edward and his family lived in the second family home, across the street from the mansion. Both houses had separate quarters for live-in servants, such as cooks and house-keepers, and sharecropping cabins out back for the cotton pickers.

I was sure Corrie Webster's sons knew I was related to them by blood. They always acknowledged my presence and treated me kindly. In fact, I think they were fascinated by me. Whenever we met, they looked at me with great curiosity-carefully going over every inch of my face, hair, neck, and arms.

They were so interested in me that-until I got accustomed to it-their staring made me nervous. Miss Minnette was also extremely interested in chat-ting with me whenever we happened to meet, which was usually in town, when I was picking up the mail at the post office, or buying candy.

Anyway, I hid the baby pictures under the newspaper in the bottom of my drawer. Several weeks later, I asked Mama about them. She didn't give me a straight answer. She said, Aunt Millie, the midwife, had trouble trying to deliver you. They had to go get Dr. Tracy. He came in a hurry, she said, and delivered you.

But nobody remembered the exact time of my birth. April 24, 1918, sure, but nobody knew the hour. And nobody could check because all the birth records were burned in a courthouse fire in 1933. The only thing my brothers and sisters remembered was that I wasn't there when they went to bed, but I was when they woke up.

Then, when you were a month old, Mama said, the doctor came back to check on how you were doing. His wife, Miss Josephine, came with him. And it was at that time that Miss Josephine took the photographs of you, Mama finally said. I remember her with that camera. I suspected all along that Old Lady Daphne put her up to it. Why she wanted photographs, I don't know, Mama said. But that's how they ended up in that house.

Mama had never seen them before now. They had been in Old Lady Daphne's possession for thirteen years when Miss Smith took it upon herself to give them to me, probably thinking that they would never be missed, since-chances were-nobody had looked at them in all that time.

Twenty-five years later Mama was visiting me in Chicago.


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