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I loved my daddy. I loved my brothers too. But in the end it was Mitchell Thomas and I who were most like brothers, with a bond that couldn’t be broken. The two of us came into Mississippi together by way of East Texas, and that was when we were still boys, long after we had come to our understanding of each other. Seeing that we were a long way from our Georgia home and both of us being strangers here in Mississippi, the two of us depended on each other and became as family.
But it wasn’t always that way.
In the beginning the two of us didn’t get along at all. Fact to business, there was a time it seemed like to me Mitchell Thomas lived just to taunt me. There were other boys too who picked on me, but Mitchell was the worst. I recall one time in particular when I was about nine or so and I was reading beside a creek on my daddy’s land, and Mitchell came up from behind me and just whopped me on the head. For no reason. Just whopped me on the head! Course I jumped up mad. “What ya do that for?” I cried.
“Felt like it,” he said. That’s all; he felt like it. “Ya wanna do somethin’ ’bout it?”
But I said nothing. Sure, I wanted to do something about it, all right, but I was no fool. Besides the fact I was a small-built boy, Mitchell was a year and some months older than me, a big boy too, stronger than most boys his age, and he could’ve broken me in two if he’d had the mind. Mitchell stared at me and I stared at him, then he turned and walked away. He didn’t laugh, he didn’t gloat; he just walked away, but I knew he’d be back.
And he was. Time and time again.
At first I just tried to stay out of Mitchell’s way, but that didn’t solve the problem. So I went to my sister, Cassie, about Mitchell. Now, my sister was a beautiful girl and I knew even Mitchell had eyes for her. But Cassie was not only beautiful, she was tough, smart, and just a bit cocky. She was six years older than I was and pretty much like a mother hen when it came to me; I knew she’d take my part. “Cassie, you know ’bout Mitchell?” I asked her.
“Course I know about Mitchell,” she answered. “Why’re you letting him beat up on you?”
“I’m not letting him!” I exclaimed in outrage. “You thinking I’m liking him beating up on me?”
“Well, if you’re not, you’d better make him stop.”
“Well, I’m trying.”
“Well, you’d better try harder.”
“I’ve tried fighting back, but he’s too strong. Thing is, I don’t know how to stop him.”
“You’d better figure a way,” she said matter-of-factly, then looked me in the eyes. “You want me to talk to him?”
I didn’t even need to think on that. “Naw, course not! You did, then they’d all be saying I had my sister fighting my battles!”
Cassie shrugged. “Then you’d better figure something out quick.”
Well, I didn’t figure anything out quick enough before Mitchell whalloped me again. And again. Finally things got so bad, I told my daddy about Mitchell and about how he and other boys too were always picking on me. Now, the thing was, Mitchell and his family and the other boys lived on my daddy’s land, and I figured my daddy with one word could put a stop to Mitchell and the rest. But my daddy said, “What you expect me to do about it?”
“I don’t know,” I replied, even though I knew exactly what I wanted him to do about it.
“You expect me to stop this boy Mitchell and the others from messing with you?”
I didn’t say anything.
“You want it stopped, Paul,” he said, “then you stop it. This here is between you and Mitchell and whatever other boys. I’m not getting into it.”
My daddy was true to his word too. More than one time he saw me with a busted lip or a bruised eye, but he showed me no sympathy. He just looked at me and said, “See you didn’t stop it yet.” After a while, though, he said, “Paul, you don’t stop this soon, those boys are going to kill you.”
“Well, they’re bigger and stronger’n me!” I protested.
“Then you use what you strongest at, boy! You use your head. Now take care of it.”
I took care of it, all right. I enlisted the aid of my brothers, Hammond, George, and Robert. I figured Hammond and George could sure enough stop Mitchell. Course, they already knew of my troubles. They’d seen my busted lip and bruises too, but they had been away at school during most of the time Mitchell had been beating on me, and I hadn’t been able to turn to them for my rescue. Robert, of course, had wanted to help me out, but there hadn’t been much he could do. He was as small as I was. Now Hammond and George were back home and I figured to settle this thing.
“So what do you want us to do?” Hammond asked.
I was looking for complete and absolute revenge, and I figured Hammond at eighteen and George at sixteen could provide that for me. “Put the fear of God into ’em!” I declared.
Hammond smiled; so did George. Robert, though, nodded solemnly. “We can do that.” Robert was nine, same age as me. Of my brothers, I was closest with Robert. I suppose, in part, being the same year’s children made us close, but there were other things too. We had been together practically since birth, and we always took care of each other. When I got into trouble, Robert was there to pull me out of it if he could, or at least to see me through it, and I did the same for him. More than one time when one of us would be getting a licking from either my mama or our daddy, the other would jump in to try to stop it and we’d both get whipped. We shared everything together. Back then, Robert was always on my side. “They got no business beating on you,” Robert said, expressing my sentiments exactly.
“That’s what I figure too,” I said.
“We’ll take care of ’em tomorrow,” Robert promised.
“Now wait a minute,” said Hammond. “I don’t know if that’s such a good idea.”
“What’s not good about it?” I asked. “Mitchell and those other boys been beating on me for the longest time, so y’all go beat on them awhile and they’ll stop.”
Hammond was quiet a moment, then said, “Well, I don’t know if that’s quite fair.”
“Sounds fair to me.”
“Me too,” said Robert.
“But George and I are older than Mitchell and those other boys, and we’d have the advantage,” said Hammond.
“Well, that’s the point of the thing!” I said.
Hammond shook his head. “’Sides that, they live here on our place, and if we get into it with them, it’ll look like we’re bullying them—”
“Well, they’ve been bullying me!”
George looked at me dead center. “You tell our daddy about this?” One thing I liked about my brother George was that he laid things right on the line; he said exactly what was on his mind. On the surface he was an easygoing sort of boy with a body that seemed to hang in a lazy fashion, such as always having one leg dangling over the arm of a chair when our daddy wasn’t around. But the truth was, he had himself a fierce kind of temper when baited and a steely right hand to match. He had never used either against me. I always told him the truth. “I told him, all right,” I replied in answer to his question.
“Well, what’d he say?”
I didn’t speak right up.
“Well? I know he said something.”
“He told me he wasn’t getting into it. He told me to stop it, so that’s what I’m trying to do.”
George laughed. “Yeah, you trying to stop it, all right. You trying to get us to stop it for you.”
“Same thing,” said Robert. Those were my thoughts exactly.
“Look, Paul,” said Hammond. “I’ll have a talk with Mitchell, but I’m not going to go beating up on him for you. Understood?”
I looked at Hammond and nodded solemnly, but I was figuring the only thing Mitchell Thomas would ever understand was a good whipping.
That very next morning Robert and I, sitting behind Hammond and George on their bays, went over to the patch of ground Mitchell’s family tended. Now, the Thomases, like all the other families who lived on my daddy’s land, were sharecroppers, and because of that fact, they were obliged to take heed of whatever my daddy or my brothers said. Miz Thomas was sure enough taking heed right now.
“Edna,” said Hammond as Mitchell’s mother stood in her dark doorway, “where’s Willie?” Willie Thomas was Mitchell’s daddy. “He gone off already?’"
“Yes, suh,” answered Miz Thomas. “He in the fields.”
“Well, doesn’t matter. We come to see Mitchell. He with his daddy?”
“Mitchell?” questioned Miz Thomas. “Well, suh, he’s out in them woods yonder choppin’ wood for the fire.”Hammond nodded. “Whereabout?”
“North yonder...by the creek.”
“All right,” said Hammond. “We’ll find him.”
We turned to go, but then Miz Thomas said, “That Mitchell, he done somethin’? He in trouble?”
“We just want to talk to him, Edna,” Hammond assured her. Still, though, as we rode away, I saw Miz Thomas frown, and young as I was, I knew she was worried. She was worried because my brothers had come. My brothers had come asking about Mitchell, and my brothers were white.
The Georgia sun was blazing by the time my brothers and I located Mitchell chopping wood on the north bank of the creek. Two of his younger brothers were with him, stacking the logs he split. As we dismounted, Mitchell struck his axe into a fallen log, then yanked it out again and held it across his chest. To tell the truth, I’d have preferred it if we had found him tending some other chore. I for one knew that Mitchell had a hot temper, and there was no telling what he might take a notion to do with that axe. Hammond, though, seemed to take no notice of the axe as he and George walked over to Mitchell. Robert and I stayed by the horses.
“See you got quite a woodpile there, Mitchell,” said Hammond cordially.
Mitchell glanced over at me, then back at Hammond before he nodded. “Yeah,” he said. His brothers were silent and still.
“Well, now, Mitchell,” Hammond went on, “we rode over because we wanted to have a little talk with you.”
“That’s right,” said George. “We understand that you been beating up on Paul there.” I appreciated the fact that George was getting right to the heart of this matter. “Quite often, as a matter of fact.”
Mitchell’s grip tightened on the axe, but he said nothing.
“We’d like to know why,” said Hammond.
I kept my eyes on the axe. I felt like I needed to warn Hammond and George. They didn’t know how crazy Mitchell could be.
“We’d like to know why you have it in for Paul,” Hammond went on. “Did he do something to you?"
Mitchell eyed his axe and didn’t speak.
Hammond and George waited; then George grew impatient. “Well? Don’t you have anything to say? Did Paul do something to you or not?” Mitchell kept on looking at that axe. “Speak up!”
Mitchell then shook his head. “Naw,” he mumbled, but I could see his fingers tightening on the handle.
“Well, if Paul hasn’t done anything to you,” said Hammond, “then I see no reason for you to be continuously picking on him. You’re older than him, bigger than him, and it’s certainly not a fair kind of thing.”
“We want it stopped,” said George, as if that should put an end to the matter right there, and I thought, Good. Now we’re getting to the point of this thing.
Hammond continued to be diplomatic. “We want you two to try to be friends, Mitchell. We’re all living here on the same land, and we all have to work together, so I don’t want to hear of any more fights between the two of you. Understood?”
Mitchell once again had nothing to say. George lost patience and grasped the handle of Mitchell’s axe. “Boy, you better answer!” he demanded, but Mitchell in a dangerous move yanked on the axe. George too yanked on the axe in an attempt to twist it from Mitchell’s grasp, but then Hammond intervened, stepping between George and Mitchell. George’s hand slipped from the axe, but he still tried to get at Mitchell.
Hammond pushed him back. “Stop it, George!” he ordered. Then he turned to Mitchell. “Now, you, boy, you put that axe down.” There was a moment when I didn’t know if Mitchell would obey. Hammond didn’t waver. “I said put it down! Now!” Mitchell looked at George, at Hammond, then slammed the axe into a log. Hammond stepped back calmly. “There’s to be no more of that.”
George shoved past Hammond and pointed his finger right in Mitchell’s face. “You try that on me again and I’ll have your head, boy! You hear me? You best be remembering I’m not Paul!”
I was afraid Mitchell was going to slap George’s hand away and the two of them would get into it right there, but Mitchell only glared at George and kept his silence. Hammond eyed the both of them and said to Mitchell, “There’s to be no more fighting with Paul.”
Mitchell looked at the ground.
“Is that understood?”
Mitchell looked up, first at Hammond, then at me, and I felt my knees go weak. “Yeah,” he mumbled, his eyes fixed on me, and at that moment I knew that my troubles with Mitchell were far from over.
And I was right.
The next time Mitchell Thomas caught up with me alone, he near to whipped the living daylights out of me. “Now, go tell your brothers ’bout this beatin’, you white nigger!” he cried as he pummeled me. “For all I care, you can tell yo’ white daddy ’bout it too!”
But after Mitchell got finished beating on me, I told no one. Instead, I made my way over to the creek and sat on its bank, looked out over my daddy’s land, and pondered why Mitchell and the other boys hated me so. Now, what Mitchell said was true: I did have a white daddy. My daddy was Edward Logan, and Edward Logan was a much-respected man. He was a prosperous man too, or at least he had been before the war had come in 1861, and still now that the war was over by several years, he was doing better than most. He owned a lot of land, and until a few years back he had owned his share of slaves too.
My mama had been one of those slaves.
My mama was called by the name of Deborah, and she was equally of the African people and of the native people, the Indians, whom we called the Nation. She was a beautiful woman. My daddy took a liking to her soon after she came into her womanhood, and he took her for his colored woman, and that’s how my older sister Cassie and I came to be. Cassie and I were our daddy’s children, and both of us were born into slavery. Now, there were a lot of white men who fathered colored children in those days, even though the law said no white man could legally father a black child; that was in part so no child of color could inherit from his white daddy. Some white men took care of their colored children; most didn’t. My daddy was one who did. Not only did he take care of Cassie and me, but he acknowledged that we were his, though it was quietly spoken, and he raised us as his, pretty much the same as his white children, and that’s what made us different, what made me different.
I was a colored boy who looked almost white. Though I had a mixed look to me, upon first seeing me, most folks thought I was white, and for some folks, if they didn’t know different, they kept thinking so. My hair was brown and straight and hung somewhat long most times, to my shoulders. Some called that the Indian look in me, and my mama liked that. My skin was what some folks call olive for some reason, and my features being what they were, people made their own judgments about who and what I was.
Because my daddy was who he was, I had some of the privileges of a white boy, privileges denied to Mitchell and other colored folks on the place. Cassie and I sat right alongside Hammond, George, and Robert at our daddy’s table. We wore good clothes, and our daddy educated us. He’d taught us himself how to read and write and figure, even though when he taught Cassie, it was against the law at the time, and when he taught me, against what so many of his white neighbors held dear, he also made Hammond and George and Robert share their books and all their school learning with us. When he traveled on business around the community, he oftentimes took me with him, along with my brothers. Just by being with Edward Logan and a part of his world, I was receiving an education none of the other boys of color on the place were privy to. My daddy protected me, and I was treated almost as if I were white. Yes, I was different, all right, and that was a fact. I sat there by the creek thinking on that, and finally decided it was no wonder Mitchell Thomas couldn’t stand the sight of me. I supposed if I’d been Mitchell, I wouldn’t’ve liked me much either.
I remember Robert came along as I was sitting there dwelling on all this and wanted to know what had happened. “What you think?” I said.
Robert heaved a sigh and sat down beside me. “Looks bad.”
“Why’d he do it this time?”
I looked at Robert. Though I’d figured it out, I wasn’t ready to talk about it. “Same as always,” I said. “He just doesn’t like me.”
Robert nodded, and we said no more for a good long while. Robert threw rocks into the creek, letting me be, and if he figured I was holding something back, he didn’t say so. Robert and I didn’t need to talk; we were that close.
Some time passed; then Robert spoke again. “You want to fish awhile?”
I glanced over at the rock opening where we kept our poles and shook my head. “Don’t feel like it.”
“Wanna do anything?”
“What you think?”
“Want me to get Hammond and George?”
I shook my head.
“What you going to do?”
“Sit right here.”
“Okay,” said Robert. “I’ll sit with you.” He continued to throw his rocks. I continued to stare out at the creek, and we said no more.
After my realization about myself and how some folks saw me, I gave more serious thought on how to stop Mitchell from beating on me. Despite now having more understanding of Mitchell’s dislike of me, I couldn’t fully understand his hate. I didn’t figure I’d ever done anything directly to Mitchell. My mama, though, figured different. She rubbed salve on my wounds and said, “You haven’t done anything, huh? Well, how you think it make Mitchell feel for you to be sending Hammond and George to his house to speak to him and scaring his mama?”
“They didn’t scare her!” I protested. “All they did was ask where Mitchell was!”
“That’s all they had to do. They’re white.”
“They’re my brothers,” I reminded her.
“Uh-huh...white brothers, and you best remember that.”
I was hardly about to forget it, what with my mama always reminding me of the fact, though in those early days it didn’t seem important to me. Hammond, George, and Robert were simply my brothers, and my daddy was my daddy, and I got tired of my mama always reminding me different; but still I had to admit that there was something to what she said about me asking Hammond and George to talk to Mitchell, something that wasn’t right. Mitchell had been born a slave on my daddy’s land, and so had I. We had that much in common. My mama was right. I shouldn’t have sent Hammond and George. I needed to settle this thing with Mitchell myself.
Once I came to that conclusion, to handle things myself, even when Hammond and George offered to help again, I said no. They had taken one look at me after Mitchell’s last beating, and George said, “Looks like that talk we had with Mitchell didn’t do much good.”
“You want us to go talk to him again?” Hammond asked.
“Better still,” said Robert, “this time we’ll beat him up good for ya!”
“No,” I replied. “You talk to him again or you whip him, he’ll still come after me. I’ll handle it my own self.”
“Then least we’d better teach you how to fight better,” said George.
“No,” I said. “I’ve got it figured now. I’ll be all right.”
George laughed. “Hope you’re right. We don’t want to have to bury you.”
Well, I didn’t want them to have to bury me either. I had a plan, and all I could do was pray that it worked. That same day I went looking for Mitchell. When I found him, he seemed surprised to see me. He looked around. “Well, where they at?” he said.
“Who?” I asked.
“Your brothers. Ain’t ’spected you to be out walkin’ round without ’em.”
“Well, I am. I come looking for you.”
“What for? To get yo’self another whippin’?”
“To ask you something.”
“And what’s that?”
“I wanna know exactly how come you don’t like me. I mean, I got some of your reasons figured, but far as I can tell, I never done anything to you.”
Mitchell shrugged. “Just don’t like you.”
“Just don’t?” I questioned.
He looked at me square and said matter-of-factly, “I got no use for white niggers.”
I thought on that for a moment. I hated that word nigger, but I wasn’t about to lecture Mitchell concerning it right now. Instead, I said, “I wasn’t so white-looking, would you like me?”
“’Cause you think you way better’n everybody else.”
“Now, what makes you think I think that? You inside my head?”
“You know how come,” Mitchell retorted.
“Just ’cause my daddy’s white and he owns this place?” I asked. “Well, I didn’t have a say about who my daddy is, and I didn’t have a say about my looking white. It’s just who I am.” I dismissed all that with a shrug and hoped Mitchell would do the same. “What else makes you think I feel like I’m better?”
“You so smart, you go on figure it out,” said Mitchell, having now said more to me than ever before without having started to pound on me.
I thought on what he said before I spoke again. “You know, Mitchell, you way stronger’n me, and ’cause you are, there’re a whole lotta things you can do I can’t. But there’re some things I can do and you can’t, like read and write and figure. Maybe you think I feel better’n everybody else ’cause I can do those things and you can’t, so I was thinking: What if I taught you to read and write and figure? Then you’d pretty much know what I know and there wouldn’t be any reason for you to think I’m thinking I’m so smart.”
Mitchell scowled. “What I want t’ read and write and figure for?”
“’Cause it’s something worth knowing,” I reasoned, “and ’cause most white folks don’t want us knowing how, ’cause once we do know, we can learn all sorts of things white folks know. You ever think why it is most white folks don’t want us to know how to read and write and figure? My daddy says it’s ’cause they need us as workers and so they don’t want us knowing much as they do. Long as they figure they know something we don’t, they can figure they’re smarter than us.”
Mitchell thought on that. “Ain’t you afraid of them night riders comin’ to get you, you go tryin’ to teach me how to do them things?” he asked dryly.
Now, the night riders were white folks who dressed up in sheets and such and rode around threatening colored folks and white folks too who started up schools for colored folks and taught colored folks anything other than what they figured colored folks needed to know. The night riders were certainly to be feared, but I wasn’t worried about them, and I knew Mitchell really wasn’t either. Neither of us had ever seen them and after all, this teaching thing would be just between Mitchell and me. I shrugged. “No need for them to find out. I’m not opening any school, just teaching you.”
“And what you ’spect me t’ do for you?” he asked.
The truth was, all I expected from Mitchell Thomas was for him to stop beating up on me, but I was realizing now with those words that Mitchell was more than just a bully. There was a pride in him too, and there’d have to be an exchange of learning for this truce I was proposing to work. “You could teach me to fight,” I said.
“Can’t teach you to win,” he returned.
“Well, that’d be up to me,” I replied.
Mitchell took his time in making up his mind. “All right then,” he finally agreed. “You teach me how t’ read and write and figure, and I’ll teach you how t’ fight, but I wants ya t’ know one thing.”
“I still don’t like ya.”
“Well, I don’t like you either,” I admitted quite truthfully.
He nodded, accepting my honesty, and the deal was struck. So that’s how things began between Mitchell and me. After that, Mitchell and I held our truce. We didn’t become friends, but at least he wasn’t beating up on me anymore. I taught him and he taught me. He wasn’t the best student, but then again I wasn’t a great fighter either. I learned how to defend myself, and maybe just as important, once the other colored boys saw Mitchell and me together without Mitchell picking on me and bopping me upside the head, they pretty much backed off and left me alone. I don’t know if at the time Mitchell was aware of it or not, but though he never declared himself as such, his presence alone made him my protector.