Death of a Childhood I waked up in a world of hurt as Mrs. Lilla yanked my arm to pull me out of bed, switching red welts onto my arms and legs with the bare spirea branch. Annie Mae! I see them sheets. Now git out! A four year-old bed wetter is evil! As she dragged me down barefooted on the rough pine floor, then out to the dirt yard, she shouted directions to her oldest daughter, who was fourteen. Irene, go get an ax and a block of wood. Then my new stepmother showed me the ax before she blindfolded my eyes with a rag. Pinching my arm tightly, she screamed at me. Now say out loud, I am going to get my head cut off so that I cannot ever wet the bed again. I cried hysterically. Irene begged, Momma, please give her one more chance. Just one more. But Mrs. Lilla held me down with her foot, and twisted my neck down sideways onto the block of wood. I held my breath until I blacked out, waiting for the ax to fall. When Papa got home, Lily, who was twelve, told him what happened. He picked me up in his arms, rocking, gathering up my little sister, Susie, too, and glared at his new wife, his face contorted with rage: Get gone fast! If youre here at noon, Ill be back to shoot you. As soon as he rode off on his horse, Mrs. Lilla and her two daughters, Irene and Lily, stuffed everything into sheets pots and pans, clothes, even Papas and my clothes, then loaded it all onto a hand-pulled wagon. She left me and Susie, who was only two, alone in that shanty in the piney woods. When Papa got home for lunch, he found us there alone. She took all my clothes, I said. Show me which way Mrs. Lilla and the girls took. I pointed, and Papa quickly lifted us onto the horse and mounted, Susie behind him, with me clutching her from behind. As he rode down the dirt path, suddenly the little black and white spotted feist, our hunting dog, darted out from the bushes, barking. Whoa, Mary! Papa called out. We are going to find our stuff here. Sure enough, when we were all down from the horse, Fido led right to the place where all bedclothes, the cooking utensils, and clothes were hidden. I stared down that curving dirt road with tall black pine trees shoulder to shoulder on either side, and begged Papa. Can we go look for my real Mother now? Papa picked both Susie and me back up onto the horse, and walked beside it, holding us on, tears trickling down his cheeks. My poor little motherless chillen, he said over and over. My poor little motherless chillen. Our real mother, Rose, was a Seminole Indian, with skin golden as a sunset, a high cheekboned face, luminous eyes, and a lilting laugh she used often. She wore a long, shiny braid down her back and white dresses with blue, red and yellow rickrack dancing around the full skirts. As she and my grandmother Susie James washed clothes in a tub outside her chickee on the Croom-Choo-Chee reservation, their laughter echoed while we played in the abandoned phosphate mine near the railroad track. Grandma was known for her moonshine recipe: Mash corn, add a little round flower called Hall, very sweet and good, then elderberries if you can find them, stir in wood alcohol that could kill you stone dead, and pour in a little sterno. Grandma Susie had made herself a still of barrel staves and crockery. Sometimes people on the reservation would drink raw sterno heat that could almost knock your head off. But before the government refused to allow any Indians to buy cans of sterno, the tribe people got together and loved it. Our clapboard house on the reservation overflowed with children. Mamas first husband, James Cox, had been killed when a train broadsided the mule wagon he was driving. They had two daughters, Louise (Lula), fourteen , and Dorothy (Dora), twelve. To marry Rose, Curtis James McClary had to convert from Baptist to Catholic; all the Seminoles were Catholic. Twin brothers, Robert (Bubba) and William (Buddy) came along in 1911, then more twins, Jacques (Jack) and me (called Tannie because of my dark brown skin) born January 7, 1913. Susie was a year and a half younger, and Minnie just a baby with Mama expecting her third set of twins that summer I was three. When our mothers sister arrived to help out, I had on a little brown corduroy coatand nothing else underneath. Mother was washing clothes in a tub in the yard as the train stopped for water. When she saw Big Baby get off, Mama picked up Minnie in one arm and Susie in the other and headed for the train. I was so mad she left me on the front porch that I threw that coat off, and began to run behind her, screaming at the top of my lungs, a fat very fatlittle nature-girl, weighing as much as my two little sisters put together. I had learned early on that if I screamed for attention, somebody would give me a sugartit (from the cane fields) to suck. So I made sure others had ample opportunities to shut me up with candy. With me around, poor Jacques never had a chance to develop much of a personality. He stayed placid, always smiling, never scheming like his twin sister me! When Mother and Aunt Baby left to go fishing, she told Lula and Dora, Dont have any boys at this house while Im away. But soon I overheard Lula ordering someone to go to mothers chicken yard and get two hens to cook for Keiser and Luke. Give old tattler big girl all she can eat so that she dont tell Mamma, Lula said. Of course, I took three helpings of everything, then ran down to a little homemade bridge across a ditch to wait for our mother. I leapt into her arms, knocking the fishing pole and pail askew in my hurry to report, Mama, guess what! Dora and Lula killed and cooked your chickens for their boyfriends. Didnt they give you any? No, I pouted. None at all. Just wait til I get home. Ill fix those two young ladies! (That was fine until the next day. Dora spanked me so long and so hard with a switch that I never tattled on my big sisters again.) Lula and Dora looked like Seminoles with the gold hues and straight noses of our mother and grandmother Susie. Our grandfather, Eugene Alonzo James, was a descendent of a pre-historic tribe, a dark-skinned, medium- height people who inhabited Florida long before the Spanish came. Some historians believe them to be Indians, while others have alluded to them as Africans who occupied Florida from the period around 450 AD. Papa was just twelve years-old, an orphan whod never had a chance for an education, when the recruiters lured him and other young Black boys from the Sea Islands of South Carolina to the west coast of Florida with the promise of jobs in the phosphate mines. But the adolescents found hell instead: fourteen hours of work seven days a week under the point of a gun with food and primitive shelter the only pay. Then he was stolen by another man who owned a sawmill in Brooksville, near Croom-ChooChee. For the first time in his life, he was hated and considered stupid because of his dark color and his language that people in Florida couldnt understand: Gullah. ! Gullah was the language made famous in Uncle Remus stories with brer meaning brother, gwine for going to, een for in. Gullah coined the word buckra, which means white man. McClary pronounced Annie as Ah-ni, the same way hed say Ah declare, according to Dr. Walker. The lowest class Blacks who spoke Gullah were called Geechees. The language was a mixture of African tongues that had developed among the slaves brought to the group of islands off the coast of South Carolina to work on cotton plantations. The people as well as the language were known as Gullah. H.L. Mencken once called Gullah the only American dialect unintelligible to persons from other parts of the country. Worse, social scientists assumed Gullah was spoken because of social backwardness, isolation, simplemindedness and physiological inferiority. One widely-published account by Ambrose Gonzales, who edited a number of volumes of Gullah, was particularly damning: Slovenly and careless of speech, these Gullahs seized upon the peasant English used by some of the early settlers and by the white servants of the wealthier colonists, wrapped their clumsy tongues about it as well as they could, and enriched with certain expressive African words, it issued through their flat noses and thick lips as so workable a form of speech that it was gradually adopted by the other slaves and became in time the accepted Negro speech of the lower districts of South Carolina and Georgia. Not until halfway through the twentieth century did anthropologists discover most Gullah wordsand the name Gullahcame from the Umbundu dialect of Angola. Wade-Lewis, Margaret. But the culture itself bequeathed a rare gift: African customs and images were kept alive by nightly storytelling as liars began to spin their yarns to two generations of Gullah children, according to anthropologist John Smith. The liar was an itinerant, usually an older male who moved from one former plantation settlement to another, spinning animal tales (Uncle Remus, for example) and mortality tales in exchange for food and shelter. Gullah culture began with transfer of slaves from Africa, focusing on how isolation factors preserved African culture and a unique language, which is similar to Cajun English. Even though they spoke Gullah, Papas two grandmothers had been shipped via the Royal African Company as slave cargo from Jamacia, West Indies, after having gone through the Breaking On period there. But both of Papas parents, Dollie and Adolphus, were McClarys from birth, the son and daughter of two Black slave women and the white McClary brothers who owned the plantations. ! Papas parents were freed three years before he was born, and died when he was three. He and his blind sister, Lavinia, Lizzie Brown (who later became famous),Van, and Charles moved from Goose Creek, South Carolina, to live with a cousin, Maggie Duke near Charleston. She was rather like the character in the nursery rhyme: There was an old woman who lived in a shoe/ with so many children she didnt know what to do/. So she gave them all broth without any bread and spanked them all soundly and sent them to bed. My father, Curtis James McClary, was humble, but he prided himself on his parents strength during slavery. Like many slaves, he told us children, his mother wore oversized skirts with big aprons. They would sing spirituals like Carry Me Back to Old Virginny, a signal for the slaves to crawl from one womans skirt to the next as they escaped to the underground railroad. My father told the stories proudly, but constantly preached to his children This is the reason I want you to go to school and get a good education. Then you wont have to go through all the pain and suffering by the buckra. My parents hoped that a move to the Tomoka Land Company Turpentine Camp in 1911 would be a chance for a better life. Jacques and I and the younger children were born there. But the struggle to survive was tragic. Within the next few years the unsanitary conditions resulted in death for three members of our family. The Buncombie Hill turpentine camp was typical of the approximately 1,000 camps in the Deep South. The camp where we were produced turpentine and rosin and had about 50 to 75 people working at times of full production. Papas job was chipping at the old pine trees with thick bark. It seemed to me he walked a hundred miles a day to chop boxes. Papa would hack first from the right, then from the left to make a v shape called a cat face. From the V, sap would run down a metal thing into a rust-colored clay cup which was fastened to the tree with a nail. The iron hack tool he carried over his shoulder was very heavy. He walked awfully bent-over one-sided from the weight. The great pine forests of Florida contributed products of value to marine commerce for nearly two centuries before sawmills made their appearance. The first products were pitch and tar produced from the sap of the pine tree. They were called naval stores because carpenters used them to caulk the seams of wooden ships. The present products of pine tree sap turpentine and rosin are still known by that name. With the advent of iron ships, chemical research found new uses for the pine gums. Turpentine now thins the paint that colors our houses and it is used extensively in the manufacture of polishes, perfume bases, waterproof cement and for various medicinal purposes. Rosin, once discarded as a practically valueless byproduct of turpentine, is today the principal ingredient of the varnish that covers floors and furniture. It is also used in the manufacture of soap, insulating material, writing paper, printing ink, sealing wax, plastics and linoleum. Sometimes men came with wagons pulled by mules. They collected the raw gum from the pots and took the sticky pitch to a still for refining. Some men came with wagons pulled by teams of long-eared mules to collect the raw gum from the pots, and then they rode to the refining still. However, Papa was often in fear of his life while tramping through the snake and alligator-infested swampy woods. The feared white woods riders on horseback would sometimes descend suddenly on Pape and other workers and accuse them of not working fast enough or not paying up debts at the commissary. I often wondered if Papa would shoot those men because they struck him with whips and treated him so cruelly. Men were often whipped or beaten to death. According to the Florida History Network, the local sheriff would be in league with the owners of the turpentine companies who would pay the defendents court fines, get them released from jail, and force them to pay off the fines by working in squalid, barbarous conditions. After the New York World newspaper reported prisoners [were] dying after repeated and daily whippings, the legislature was forced to investigate. That wasnt easy because owners of the companies were usually politically connected. The camp owner, Archie Clark, who was red-headed and hot-tempered, talked down to the men as if they were children. He compelled all the men to buy everything at the commissary. Theyd order a side of bacon, five pounds of dried lima beans and so forth. When they got their checks at the end of the month, Mr. Archie would go over to the black ledger. There were always overcharges. The men couldnt read, so they had to depend on the owners word. By the time the accounting was finished, the men would earn just $4 or $5 a week. It was just like after slavery, when black people had to still work on the farm. In 1891, the Florida legislature passed a law that said debt was a crime if the workers stopped working before the debt was paid. Some workers just fell deeply into debt and could not leave. The turpentine camps seemed to be the worst places, so much so that President Theodore Roosevelt had noted some jobs as being a form of slavery. Blacks were treated in much the same way as before 1865. White employers and officials went after missing blacks and arrested them, under protection of vagrancy laws, using whatever force felt necessary to protect the financial investment. The worker had to stay with the employer until his debt was paid or face criminal charges that made him liable to the convict lease, often being led to the same man from whom he had tried to escape, it was reported in the Journal of Forest History. Our family couldnt even afford smoked bacon. The food supply we got was mostly fatback (they called white bacon), and dried peas and beans or other dried, preserved foods, and corn meal. I saw my father ask for money for shoes and food. Mr. Clark looked at the book and told him, Jim, you dont have anything coming. You owe me. That commissary was based on the sharecropping system. Papa walked out with tears in his eyes, needing money so badly to buy food for the family. School wasnt easy to come by since compulsory education was mandated only for white children in the State of Florida. Nobody in the turpentine camp went to school, and no education was available at the camp. But my father got his cousins wife, Mary McLeod Bethune, who had founded the Daytona Educational and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls in nearby Daytona Beach in 1904, to come out by mule-drawn wagon to teach basic reading and arithmetic to my mother, Rose. She and the four oldest children learned basic numbers and how to read a little, even though Papa could neither read nor write himself. I want you children never to live this kind of life, Papa preached, never to have to take foolishness from the white man. He has always looked out for his interest, so you will have to look out for yours. And you cant do it without education. With no running water or electricity, few people were able to keep clean. The shanties had cracks and holes which allowed rats, roaches, even snakes inside. Yards were bare dirt, which blew in through the wall and floor cracks. Infections and viruses ran rampant, but no doctor was available to help black people. My mother went back to Croom Coo Chee to give birth to the last set of twins, her ninth and tenth children. Before dawn [on July 17, 1916], someone called the midwife to deliver the babies. The temperature inside was stifling in the clapboard shack. My mother had struggled all day and night for a difficult breach delivery with only a mid-wife to help. Because of the rough handling and nonsterile conditions, she developed childbed fever [an infection of the endometrium and bloodstream]. At 10 to 7 in the morning, Eugene and Jesse were delivered still-born. My mother died at 4:10 that afternoon. Rose McClary was just 27 years-old. I watched the women in her family bathe her with water brought in from a well in buckets, then dress her in the ritual white robe while the men took rough pine boards and hammered together a crude box. They put a full Indian headdress on my mothers head and a crucifix in her fingers. Then they placed her and the two babies together into the unpainted box and lifted it onto a mule-drawn wagon. We children watched it go down the road, followed by a procession of adults on horseback and mule-drawn wagons to make the journey to the Seminole burial grounds near Dade City. As the ruling tribe elder, Grandmother Susie got to decide where the children were to livewhich meant we never got to stay together as a family again. Aunt Minnie took the baby who was named for her (but nicknamed Rat). Lula and Dora stayed with Grandma Susie, and the three boys went to their mothers brother, Uncle Charlie and Aunt Jill (Josephine) James. Grandmother also wanted Susie, since she was named for her. Nobody wanted me, the only child in the family with dark brown skinexcept Papa. Since he thought I would be lonely, he refused to let Susie leave him either. The three of us went back to the turpentine camp to live. So before I was four, I became the woman of the house in charge of my two and a half year-old sister. When Papa would go off to work and leave us, he put up dried beans to soak overnight. In the morning, he told me to keep wood on a low-burning flame. I dutifully attended to the beans or peas and added water, and I saw to it that the stove had wood in it, and even baked sweet potatoes in the oven part. I had watched my father make corn bread, so one day I decided to surprise him with my cooking. The beans were done with the fatback and the potatoes in them. The grits were made. So when he came home, he saw that I had made cornbread so brown and beautiful. He picked me up and swung me around. Baby, where did you learn to cook? I said I had watched him. He sat down, took one bite, began to choke, and tears ran out of his eyes. Oh, honey, you put in Perline (detergent), he said. I cried, worried I had poisoned him. No, dont feel bad and be sorry, he soothed me. You were trying to copy from your Papa to make me happy. That can never be wrong. So then he showed me the right ingredients: cornmeal, baking powder, and salt. From then on, I made it just fine. The neighbor lady, Mrs. Arlyss, showed me how to unravel muslin flour sacks to save the thread, then wind it around paper for crocheting. Shed come over in the morning to make us hot grits, then stay to crochet covers for orange crate tablesand everything else in the house. By four, I crocheted, too. One day Papa came home for lunch to find me sitting on a rusty metal milk crate behind the shanty. I was crocheting and crying as I tried in vain to untangle the threads. He picked me up from the crate and pressed me close. Baby, why are you crying? Because my mother is dead, I said, now sobbing hysterically. I miss her, and I want to die to be with her. My father sat down on the crate, cradling me like an infant. Baby, if you die, Papa will be very hurt and lonely, so please dont wish to leave me. Besides, you are one wise child who is going to be a teacher. On that promise, I still felt sad, but I decided it was important to live after all. Papa needed me. Besides I had something important to do. After that Papa brought Susie and me to a neighbor, Mrs. Boyd, the mid-wife, so that someone would take care of us. The only problem was eleven year-old Minnie Boyd, whod been the baby of the family and spoiled by her father. Now Susie and I were getting some of the attention. So when Mr. Boyd went to work and Mrs. Boyd left to run errands or deliver a baby, Minnie would come out with the switch. Dance the jig, shed order me, stinging my legs with the switch, forcing me to dance until my legs were red with welts. Minnie threatened that if we told anyone about the beatings, she would kill both Susie and me. So we never breathed a word to anyone. Papa tried right away to find a replacement for our mother, but he said hed never marry a woman with skin as dark as his. One Black woman he knew suspected him of running out on her, so she set a trap. She filled a pail with liquid lye and attached it by a string to the door frame. When Papa came through the door, the pail emptied on him, by sheer luck ruining his coat instead of his skin and eyes. After that, Papa said, he was convinced all Black women had evil in them. But what about me? I would ask. Im as dark as you. Baby, youre one of a kind. Youre so special! Nobody else will ever be like you, hed reply. I never heard him say even one negative thing about me as long as he lived. Being so special, I imagined Papa didnt need another wife. Sure enough, even though he married Mrs. Lilla, she was booted out right away when she was mean to me. The marriage lasted only a few weeks. I couldnt imagine anybody more evil than Mrs. Lilla until the next stepmother arrived a few months later. For both the new wife and me, now almost six years old, it was hate at first sight. At second sight, I took a gun and tried to kill her. Life with Mrs. Ill Treatment Not only was my next stepmother, Missy, an alcoholic but, unlike me, she was skinny and walked bowlegged. She switched when she walked. Because her rear end was flat, shed wear a stinking old pad to make artificial buttocks. Shed open that mouth with the two gold teeth right in front and call me at age six a big ass nigger. Since Missys skin color was what used to be called high yeller, she felt superior. But I never knew Missy to take even one bath in years. The odor warned people of her presence. Every morning she gagged, which is how I knew she was waking up. She hit the floor with a force to stagger across the room to drink moonshine as I lay there, holding my breath, my heart beating so hard I could hear it, waiting, listening, thinking of what I could do when Missy called, remembering the decapitation attempt by Mrs. Lilla. I had dreams of running away. But where? What would Papa do if I left? What would become of Susie? Missy would go out in the mornings to bust suds for a well-known white family on North Street, leaving us little girls to fend for ourselves. The Cliftons, who had hogs and cows, would go around selling fresh meats, milk and illegal moonshine. Missy would get her share of the moonshine, and stagger home, reeking of it, waving oak switches in her hand, rocking from side to side. Susie! Annie Mae, git over here! shed call out as soon as got within earshot of the house. Shed take off her shoes at the door and come after us. When we spied her, we hid under the house, which sat on stacks of concrete blocks. Wed crawl from the back to the front and back again. It never occurred to Missy to look under the house. But when we finally did show our faces at suppertime, our stepmother would whip us with oak switches for no apparent reason at all. One day Susie and I heard some women talking Mrs. White and Mrs. Thomas and Mrs. Howard from next door. Lord, one of these days when those children are going to grow up, said Mrs. White, and theyll beat that woman and not take any more beatings from her. Susie said to me, And that day might be tomorrow. As quiet and pious as Susie was at age five, shed say, Tannie, I love to fight. Sure enough, Susie got hold of Missys switch and hit her repeatedly on the thighs. From that day, Missy never hit Susie again, just me who wouldnt talk back. Even I was afraid of Susie. Little sister bossed everybody around. But Papa saw her as a placid child, just like her mother, a shame-faced woman. I often wondered if Papa really knew how lonely and sad I was. Certainly he, or nobody else for that matter, could judge the seriousness of this condition from outward appearances. I still greeted others and with a ready smile and usually a warm and loving embrace. Thus Papa used to say, Dat child is a wonderful person. She loves people she is happy! But this statement could be equated with the words of an old African-American folk-Blues song: Baby, you dont know; Baby, you dont know; Baby, you dont know my mind. When you see me laughing, Im laughing just to keep from crying; laughing, I wont lose my mind. I was always interested in doing something. I used pampas grass with long roots. Id wash it off, braid the hair, then take crepe paper and make a beautiful dress. The longer the hair, the more you appreciated it. My father wouldnt let any one of us cut our hair nor straighten it. God gave you the kind of hair He wanted you to haveso keep it that way. What did interest me was what my twin brother and the other boys did. I would show them how to take burlap and make little tents to roast marshmallows and hot dogs. But the boys got mad because I told them just what to do step by step. It seemed unfair that they got to strip off their clothes and go for a swim, so I stripped, too. When my brother saw me standing naked, he chased me home and told my father how ashamed he was of me. My father didnt smack me, but he said, Remember, youre developing, and your brothers are ashamed. My father said, Dont have contact with people who can have a bad influence on you. Unfortunately, that included my Aunt Minnie, who was an alcoholic. So my job was to take care of my sister, Minnie. I didnt dare be bad. This was the state of affairs with me. Perhaps, deep down inside of me, there was the notion that, although this loneliness and sadness I felt was present during the nighttime years of my growing up, a ray of light would appear to brighten up things during the darkest part of the night. Only Papa, who worshipped me, made these times bearable he really did. Every day hed say, Thats a bright child. Shes smart. Shes going to be a teacher. Every day my stepmother would call me a stupid, ugly nigger, predicting Youll never get a man cause youll still wet the bed, and by the time youre 12, you wont be able to see your shoes for your (pregnant) belly, or youre as mean as your cussed old daddy. When I was six, Papa moved from the turpentine camp to town at the suggestion of Mary McLeod Bethune, who agreed she would start the schools first kindergarten class so I could have a place to go and learn. South Carolina Gullah-born, too, she adored Brother Jim as she always called him. Shed left her husband, Papas cousin, Mr. Bethune, alone in South Carolina when she felt God was calling her to Daytona Beach to start a school for Negro girls, which she founded with $1.50 and five little girls (plus her own son, Albert, 5). They had to clear out the city dump, known as Hells Hole to build the school in 1904. By the time I started kindergarten in 1920, more than a hundred young girls combined learning to read and count with domestic training on raising gardens, washing clothes and sewing. I already knew the domestic chores, so I worked on schoolwork until bedtime every night. I loved Mrs. Bethuneloved her like a substitute mother. I didnt want to talk like Papa because I wanted to sound educated. I spent a year in kindergarten, but only two weeks in first grade, and one-half semester in second grade. Within a year and a half, I had been promoted all the way to third grade. But being always the youngest in my class left me isolated and more lonely. The other girls hated me for being young but making all As in school, so when Id approach, theyd say, Go away, baby, and get your bottle. I found a way to gain acceptance and be like them. At eight, I started smoking cigarettesa habit that would hold me hostage for the next 70 years. I usually sat on the steps and smoked while I watched other children play, but I would have something to read or do that was creative. So I considered myself sort of antisocial. I thought I was better than they because I was doing something intellectual. I was sewing all my own clothes and Susies, too, using my most treasured possession, my real mothers old treadle sewing machine. Papa would send me down to the feed store to get a dozen muslin bags for 10 cents, then to the drug store to get dye, and old newspaper pieces to create my own patterns. One sack would make a shirt, another a blouse. Id make blouses and skirts for my friends. Soon other children were clamoring to pay 25 cents or 50 cents for new clothes, enough for me to get thread andonce a year two bolts of real yard goods. From that, I even made pleated skirts. The machine was the one real joy in my life. But one day when I came home, the machine was not there. Missy had taken the machine left to me by my mother and traded it in for one for herself. When I saw it, I screamed. Thats not my machine! That day I knew I would have killed Missy if I could have got near a gun. Instead, tears running down my cheeks, inconsolable over the loss of my only possession, I grabbed my stepmother by both arms. How dare you take my machine? Papa said this was just for me. How could you? How could you? And then I slapped her. When Susie heard Missy scream, she took over. Susie beat her to a pulp, and told her to go get my machine back. But she didnt, and we concluded it wouldnt do any good to let Papa know. I didnt want Papa to have to suffer my own hurtso he never even noticed the old machine had been replaced, and Missy, of course, kept mum. I swallowed my hurt and intense hate for my stepmother, deciding Id get back at Missy by proving her wrong about me. At the same time, I felt very sorry for Papa. I never reported abuse by the stepmothers because I was afraid that if Papa got word people were messing around with his children, he would kill them and go to jail for the rest of his life, and then I wouldnt have either parent. As young as I was, thats the burden I felt I had to carry. At age eight, I was forced to scrub all the floors at home. We had a huge square grand piano that sat on four legs. Knowing how badly I wanted to play, Papa bought it down the street for $15 when Mrs. Johnsons son got married. I was on my hands and knees scrubbing when Missy came in drunk and started telling me how stupid I was, just like my real mothera savage, she said, and added my mother had been playing the dozens. Then she commanded that I do the whole floor over. You missed a place right over there and made this all motley. Yes I did! I talked back for the first time. Playing the dozens (talking bad about your mother) was bad for the black side, and it was equally bad for the Indian side to be called a savage. So I jumped off my knees. Back then shotguns were put on racks over every door to protect the houses. So I got a chair and pulled up and got that gun. I shot toward her. Missy was high on moonshine, but not too high to run. I followed her with the heavy gun. Boom! Boom! Mr. Ashley, who lived in back, heard the shooting, so he jumped the fence and ran in. Mae, what are you doing? She called my mother a savage, and Im going to kill her, I said. She deserves to be shot. The neighbor took one look at the slobbering, drunken Missy, and quietly took the gun and led me over to his house. Soon Susie came over and asked, Tannie, do you want me to go back over there and beat her up? No, are you going to tell Papa? Mr. Ashley said we have to, said Susie. Why not? Because then Papa would kill her, and you and I would have no one. Missy would go to bed with anyone to get more money for Moonshine. Susie caught her with one of the Cliftons and told on her to Papa. But I said, No, this didnt happen. Susies just making it up. Susie took me aside. Tannie, you know how many times this has happened. Of course, I did. But I again was thinking of Papa. I couldnt afford to take the risk of him being taken away for killing her. All Papa did was smack Missy for getting drunk. The McClarys, like all Blacks in Daytona Beach, lived on the wrong side of the canal, in Midway, which meant children had to go all the way into Kingston, which was white, for the mail. The white children used to meet at the canal divide and throw rocks and call us niggers. So Susie, Thelma, Abby, Lucille, and I would start building up an arsenal on Sunday afternoon to defend ourselves. We had a big rock bed to prepare for the assault. As we girls approached the canal, Annie Mae Clifton would call out, Here come the niggers! And the rocks would fly. Then Susie would retort, Here come the niggers, and here come the stupid Crackers were going to fight! Then rocks hurled from the other side, and children started running and scattered. Sometimes a child would get hit in the foot, but nobody really got hurt. When we went back from the mail, everything was all right, and Annie Mae Clifton and I spent the night together making doll clothes. Thats the kind of relationship the races had in Daytona. The whites lived on the East Side of the railroad tracks toward the ocean, and the blacks on the west. Blacks had separate express deliverymen, their own postmen, and even their own policemen. Black police could never go across the tracks to arrest a white person. White police usually didnt cross the tracks to come get a black unless he was a real desperado. But that principle of protection didnt apply when the Ku Klux Klan was involved. One night Papa shot a thousand KKK. Or at least thats the way I told the story in first grade. My father had told us that Mr. Booker (our neighbor) had worked as a farm hand for a man in Osteen. After harvesting, the man asked for his pay. Instead the landowner knocked him down and said he didnt pay niggers, whereupon Mr. Booker grabbed the shovel and beat up the man, then ran. He had a sheriffs posse looking for him. In those days, the prisoner usually didnt make it all the 30 miles from Daytona to the County Seat in DeLand for trial. Lynch mobs strung the black man up along the way. So there wasnt any question about expecting the law to be fair. Mr. Booker was lucky that a white person took him in, a member of the Masonic Lodge, a Christian brotherhood of which McClary was a member. The white man called Papa, who loaded up his truck with sugar cane stalks, then hid Mr. Booker underneath the crop to bring him back to the McClary house. It wasnt long before Sheriff Jimmy Derden came knocking at the McClarys front door. Hey, Jim. You got Mr. Booker here? I aint goin to say he isor aint, Papa replied. But I will say this much. You cannot come over my threshold. This is my house and my pant legs are just as long as yours. And another thing. I dont call you Jimmyso you can call me by my proper name. Whats that? Derden was mad. Deacon James McClary, Papa said. After that, everybody in town, black and white alike, called him Deac. Even though the sheriff left, the men knew the trouble was just beginning. Sure enough, about dark a neighbor came running to our house with the news hed heard a whole bunch of horses coming down the road to the house. All the families in the neighborhood rushed to the McClarys. Papa ordered all the women and children to hide under tables at the back of the house. Then the women doused the lanterns while the men and big boys armed themselves with 12-guage, eight-shell pump shotguns and waited. Papa gave directions: Wait quiet til they stop in front and I give the signal. From my position, hugging Susie under the kitchen table, I heard a thousand hoofs. Through the side window, we children could see the lighted torches and white sheets of the riders. Now! Papas shout was followed by more booms than 100 thunderbolts. A torch of fire landed in the front room through the window. Get a bucket! one man shouted. I did, and threw it on the flame. The fire was out, but I could hear tortured screams of men who were shot out in front of the house. Oh, Lawd! Lawd! Womens voices anguished with their fear. But when the horses left and the house was quiet again, not one man inside the house was dead. I couldnt sleep that night, worried they might come back and kill everybody. Pretty soon Papa came in to see how I was and to comfort me. People who are racist and do bad things against other people are very insecure, he said. They dont like themselves and take to blaming others for their lot in life. Even the KKK. You just remember that all people are made good in Gods image. Some of his children just go astray. But let God deal with them. Dont you try to judge them. Even so Papa had to stay on guard for his life. I worried that Papa might shoot some of those white men when he went into Daytona Beachbecause whenever he loaded the wagon with his children to go to town, he dressed up in his Sunday suit, but then put on starched and ironed overalls (with suspenders) and a denim jumper over his suit. Then he stuck his 38 special or 45 Colt in between his suit and jumper. Blacks didnt own cars, but they werent allowed to ride buses, so they had to use black taxi drivers. But even this wasnt safe after what happened to Mr. Snell. Hed gone over to the white neighborhood to pick up Miss Lannie Johnson, who cleaned by day for the Brubakers. As he was driving down the street, he heard a crash, and saw one of the Brubakers kids and his bike fly out across the hood of his car. Frantic, Snell made the mistake of knocking on white doors to try to get some help for the child. Immediately the Sheriffs crew came out to take him to DeLand to arraign him. He never got there. White men got up a posse and killed Snell on the spot. Papa was thrifty and knowledgeable, even though he couldnt read or write. He was always busy doing something to earn a livingfollowing crops in season, finding used lumber to build frames and screen wire to make windows. One storeowner bragged, Mr. McClary can tell you down to five nails how many it takes to build a house. I was especially proud of this, because Id been giving him lessons. I was eight years old, in the third grade, when Papa did the grading of US 1 south from Daytona to New Smyrna Beach, using a mule team, pans and shovels. I organized night school for the men construction workers and taught them to read and write. They had to come for one hour Monday through Thursday nights for the charge of 50 cents a week. With the money, I bought pencils, papers, and slates, and gave each man a project to do. Papas was to build a house out of matches. He even created partitions for that house. It wasnt like our real housethe house of matches had an indoor bathroom. I had wanted so badly to learn to play the piano, so at age nine I went down the street and asked Miss Harris if she would teach me. When she told me the cost was 50 cents a lesson, twice a week, I had to tell her I couldnt afford it. But she said, if Id come on Saturday and scrub her kitchen floor and rake her dirt yard, shed give me free lessons. After only four lessons, I told her I wanted to play for the Sunday school at my fathers churchand I did. I didnt want to have to learn to play all those sharps in the hymns, so I just changed them all to flats. Nobody seemed to notice, and I went on playing. Papa was taken out and beaten by white men when I was nine. He and a man named Thornton Smith were referred to as Damn Niggers. He supported a councilman named Mr. Armstrong, and Papa used to recruit voters. When it was time for election, Armstrong would give Papa money to buy a whole hog for a barbecue. The next day, Papa would throw a picnic open to anyone in the community. As many whites as blacks would attend, but segregation was still the order of the day every other day. When blacks got their very first park on Cypress Street, right off Nova Road, the blacks always referred to it as McClary Park. Even boys who used to shoot craps would stop when theyd spy my father and call out, Here comes Deac. And theyd thrown down the dice and run. He didnt allow any congregating on street corners. Hed walk with a crooked cane and use the horn to grab a child and talk to him about getting to school. Aint no such thing as delinquency, Papa would say, just parents who not doin their job! My father was not literate, but he knew how to limn a hymn, teach Sunday school and do a prayer. He was a 32nd degree Mason. He could recite that six or seven-page document for the ceremony of heart. He was also a carpenter who knew how to tellwithin five nailshow many nails were needed for a whole house. Papa had four rental houses hed built himself. You see, we had 10 rooms. My father was a very handy man, a self-educated carpenter and plumber. He made cinder blocks to sell for five cents apiece. Our house was on Walnut Street. He built houses to rent, about $3.50 a week in the early 20s. In the summertime he went to Pittsburgh to work in the steel industry, in winter to Fort Pierce to work in the pineapple business, anywhere he could find a crop to pick or a job to do. Missy never worked because Papa didnt believe in women workingexcept for me. I had to be exceptional in every way. To him, I was the Queen of the Universe. My papa, like Mrs. Bethune, had white friends who respected him highly. White pharmacists, white grocers, and a white doctor were loyal. His credit was good anywhere. He could send any of us to get something from a store, and they would write it on a ledger. Then when my Papa got paid, he would pay them. They all called him Deacon McClary. So I guess thats why we didnt grow up with any fight back. To say he was religious was an understatement. To keep the promise he made when marrying my mother, we went to 6 a.m. mass every Sunday at St. Pauls Catholic Church on Ridgewood Avenue. Then wed come home for Papas breakfast Bible reading. He operated on the sayings: Take what you have. Make what you need. His slogan was Let every knock be a boost. He told us to be determined to go even higher. He made a habit, both in prayer and lecture, of teaching us how to live and to ignore bad examples. He read Matthew 5: Blessed are the meek He told us how slaves, through prayer and endurance and fortitude, could say, I know, Lord. Speaking of how white people hate us, I told Papa one Sunday morning after early mass. Have you noticed that we have to sit at the back of the church, but we drink from the communion cup first, then the whites have to drink after us? If they think were dirty, how come they do that? Papa just laughed. You one wise child. You notice things they havent figured out yet. After Papas breakfast sermon at home, I went to Methodist services at school. Then he became one of the founders of the Greater Friendship Baptist Church in Daytona. So the Baptists baptized father and he became a deacon. My father would go to the Bible and tell me, Jesus said, turn the other cheek. Let them have both cheeks to slap. I dont want to see my children killed. I dont want any of you girls to have to scrub buckras floors. If you have to do that to get money for school, just remember: this is the means, not the end. Think of your end as being a professional somewhere doing something to better people. With every stroke of that mop, you say: this is just the means. This is just the means. This is not an end. You laugh at their attitudes. Keep in mind they are insecure. Remember, if they dont love themselves, they cant love anybody else. The big problem for me was that Papa ignored Missys examples. He couldnt see the evil in her. But I wanted every knock to be a boost out the door for her. Instead Papa banished my sister Lula for committing the ultimate sin: meeting paydays. Lula, who was 11 years older than me, used it against me that she had scoliosis and said it was because she didnt have any childhood. She claimed my mother hadnt allowed her to play with other children, because I wouldnt go with anybody else but my father and Lula. Jack, my twin, would stay with anybody, but if Lula attempted to leave me for a minute, she claimed, I would cry and yell, I want Lula. And so, she said, that deprived her of her childhood and friends. She said I caused her to be deformed because she used to have to carry the big fat me around. However, every one of the girls in my mothers family, including me, have had twisted spines. Lula always referred to herself as being very pretty, and so did everyone. Youd think so, too. She was not dark brown like me, but a beautiful light gold tint, with facial features like my mother, a thin straight nose and high cheekbones. Everyone called her Lula, the Indian girl. Can you see the difference between her and Mae the South Carolinian with black skin, a flat nose, and wide lips? When Lula got angry, shed call me old black thing. That was a fighting word in those days. So Id yell, Papa, she called me I didnt have to say any more. That did it. I didnt have to tell him the rest of the sentence. Hed answer. Thats all right, Baby. The blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice. Another thing hed say was Blacker is wonderful. It was very common in the black community to talk about shit color. When she called black, Id call her old shit color. That would shut her up for a while. She earned money, but when I once, when I was six, and asked her for a nickel for a composition book, she said Hell, no! Go out and work! I cried and cried. At 15, Lula became a prostitute. Shed go to the turpentine camp on paydays. The prostitution went against my fathers belief. He told her she was not welcome at his house. Then he told us never to speak to her or about her again. Until now, every grown-up woman Id known was evil except my dead mother, of course. In my miserable childhood, I didnt dream I was about to get close to two real ladies, who not only changed my life: these two women changed the whole United States of America. Mama Mame and the Big Shots Unlike the women who later became my friends, Toni Morrison (Beloved) and Maya Angelou (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings), I never wanted to look like Shirley Temple. I never had a desire to be white. Maybe Toni and Maya were more privileged than I, but more likely its because my father and Mary McLeod Bethune, whom I always called Mama Mame, instilled a sense of pride in the value of Blackness. I loved herloved her like a substitute mother. She used to come to the turpentine camp, where I was born, on Saturdays to teach the people how to read and write. She had persuaded my father to move to Daytona Beach so she could put me in school. She and my father called each other brother and sister. Not only was she related to him by marriage to his cousin, but my maternal grandmother, Susie, was married to Mrs. Bethunes uncle, James McLeod. Mama Mame and Papa liked to tease each other. They both had extremely dark skin and liked to dress to the teeth. Once she and my father and the Reverend Barkeley were walking down the street in Jacksonville and somebody said, Here come the kings and a queen from Africa. So on the Sunday afternoon programs before the Rockefellers, Gambles, and the like, shed call out, Stand up, Brother McClary. Let these people in Daytona Beach see a king from Africa. My father would just howl. The influence Mrs. Bethune had on all of us was because of her treatment to students. Her title was always Mother to students, faculty, and townspeople. In all the years I was around them, I never heard either her or my father use the word Negro to us.i Way back then, they would refer to us as blacks. Mrs. Bethune did later use the term Negro addressing the President of the United States and white audiences, and she founded the National Council of Negro Women in 1935. It was only to her children that she chose to avoid the stigmatism of the term Negro. Mrs. Bethune soon became the only real mother for me. Shed have counseling session with her girls once a week. These sessions would tell us how to carry ourselves, so that others would think better of us when they saw our carriage was in a Godly manner. Neither my best friend nor I could afford boarding school, so every day at school lunch time we would buy one bag of gingersnaps for a nickel and fill two glasses of water. Will you have some caviar today? I would ask in my most pretentious voice. Why, yes, with roast duckling and a spot of tea, my friend would reply. Of course, neither of us had any idea what caviar was. But the pretense kept us from feeling sorry for ourselves. The time when Mrs. Bethune had the most influence on everybodys life was on Sunday afternoons at 3 for what became famous community conversations. At school every Friday wed practice all afternoon for Mother Bethunes Sunday meetings. The first bell would sound at 2 p.m. as a signal to put on our uniformsblue skirts, white middy blouses, blue jackets, and red ties. The second bell rang at 2:30, the signal to line up, rain or shine. It seemed the whole town came out to watch us as we marched in formation to Mrs. Bethunes instructions: The left foots the right foot. The right foots the wrong foot, a cadence similar to the army. We would line up in order of our size, the girls on one side, and (finally in 1923 and afterii) boys on the other, to march around the campus to the beat of the drum and bugle corps. Wed march in to Get You Readyfor the Judgment Day. Then wed sing some patriotic airs and spirituals, put on skits and recite poems, all to applause. Then we were introduced to the important white people like the Rockefellers, the Cannons, the Gambles, and the Rhodes. They came to see the little natives shineand we did! Every place Mrs. Bethune took us, even the most racist people would tip their hats to us, perhaps because we were dressed patriotically. In summer, we wore white linen suits to show purity of purpose. I came to equate my own life with one of those poems I recited: Langston Hughes lines [from Mother and Son]that Life for me aint been no crystal stair:iii Well, son, Ill tell you: Life for me aint been no crystal stair! Its had tacks in it, And splinters, And boards torn up, And places with no carpet on the floor Bare! But all the time Ise been a-climbin on, And reachin landins, And turnin corners, And sometimes goin in the dark Where there aint been no light. So, boy, dont you turn back. Dont you set down on the steps Cause you finds its kinder hard. Dont you fall now For Ise still goin, honey, Ise still climbin, And life for me aint been no crystal stair. When we had performed, Mrs. Bethune got up and spoke of those of us who had seemingly impossible longings and suffering. Within a few minutes, she had everybody there in tears. Shed say, My heart bleeds for those children, and shed hit herself on the rear end. (The kids used to whisper, Mama wears her heart on her behind.) But Mrs. Bethune was moving to the crowd. Shed cry out: You say we are separate and equal, but you live east of the tracks, and we live west. But you use the Black people to clean and take care of your children. What you havent thought about is, if a fever breaks out on our side of the tracks, it also breaks out on yours. So it is to your benefit to help provide medical care for the poor little children. You could just smell the wealth of those people a block away. People would applaud. Then shed motion boys with woven reed baskets on long sticks that would reach half-way down the aisle. The dollars would be bulging out of the baskets, and everybody would be crying. On other days, those white women from the fancy Palmetto Club would come over and teach us how to tend gardens, cut out patterns, and make pies and cakes. Across the road from Faith Hall, we raised fruits and vegetables to sell to wealthy tourists. One of the things Mrs. Bethune taught us was what it means to vote and how to get our parents and relatives to register. Shortly before election time one year, we were visited by a troop of Klansman on horseback, carrying fiery torches, crosses, and guns, and blowing strange horns.iv Mrs. Bethune ordered all the lamps extinguished. The girls sang, Be not dismayed, whateer betide, God will take care of you. We sang them right off the campus, said Mrs. Bethune, and the next day we all voted, too! Id go to Mama Mame several times a week to talk about my problems with my mean stepmother. Shed listen, then give me a pat on the back and say, Remember, honey. That woman was your fathers choice for a wife. I cant say anything positive or negative about her. But I can say to you, just try to endure. Dont forget to pray and ask God for guidance. She called me Mac. Shed say, Mac, youve always been wonderful. You make everyone happy. Youre one of my jewels. And then shed make me (and others) memorize gems, two of which stuck with me all my life and that I still use 75 years later: Mans extremity is Gods opportunity. When you think you have reached the extreme of your difficulty, then God has the opportunity to step in and help. The darkest part of the night is just before the dawn. I had no choice but to make As. My brothers were content with a C or D, but I had to put myself on top. For me, A was the bottom limit. But I missed out on ways of the street, not even playing. I usually sat on the steps and watchedwith a book on my lap. Maybe I thought I was better than they because I told Susie she would waste her time by playing. When I was small, Mama Mame took us over the Halifax River to sing for John D. Rockefeller on the Ormond Beach side. We marched in wearing our uniforms and singing, Hallelujah! Theres a meeting here tonight. He talked to us. He was a nice man. So was Mrs. Rhodes, the sister of the man who founded Rhodesia, the founder of the Rhodes Fellowships. When her girls were going out to sing, Mrs. Bethune wore a big apron with huge pockets over her dress. Theyd throw dimes in her pockets as she would walk up and down the aisle. With the help of these rich people, not only were buildings built, but I can recall Mama Mame seeing that we had our tuition paid, even when Papa didnt have money. We had two Daytona Beachesthe White one east of the railroad tracks and the Black one west of the tracks. We couldnt go to White restaurants. We could go into Iveys, but we werent allowed to try on any clothes. As a result, Blacks created their own professionals. We had our own electricians, plumbers, brick masons, and policemen. It was self-help. We had to learn to help ourselves to survive. Going across the Halifax River bridge was a big deal to us, because Black people werent allowed on the east side of the river. Blacks couldnt go to the Worlds Most Famous Beach until Mr. Rockefeller later gave Mrs. Bethune the Bethune Beachand that was to be a quarter of a century later. In fact, no place between New York and Miami allowed a black person to go to the beach. I used to say to my Papa, Isnt it peculiar that the white people always refer to us as people who stink, and yet they wont let us go in Gods good ocean to bathe? I had a terrible experience on the beach when I was still in elementary school. Since I was working as a baby sitter, nursing we called it, I could take little Norma Nelson to the beach because she was white. Under the walkway, I saw a white man come down and pull out his penis and begin to shake it at me. I didnt tell Mrs. Nelson when I got back home. I didnt know what masturbation was. But when it happened two more times, I told her that the man came at 10 after 2 every day. She said, Ill send somebody down. Next day an undercover policeman came and took him away. I didnt dare tell Papa, because at $10 a week pay, I really needed that money. If Id told Papa, he would have been down there instead of the undercover policemanand Papa would have been arrested for being on the beach. He was a little guy, but he had a big mouth and was not afraid of anybody. My brothers didnt get to go to school with me, since boys werent allowed there until 1923 when the school merged with the Cookman School for Boys. I was 10 that year, and I was so happy, because I absolutely loved boys. I loved boys from the time I can remember. I was overwhelmingly carried away by boys. I had developed early, and with my large breasts and tiny waist, I was someone the boys wanted, too. If Papa hadnt threatened us with that shotgun about bringing home any babies out of wedlock, Im sure I would have had a house full. Nobody taught us anything about menstruation or birth control. The older black girls and women at the turpentine camp had told me how to avoid pregnancy: take nine drops of turpentine every morning for the nine days after your monthly period. If you have sex, take a douche of vinegar right afterwards. Considering that turpentine is used as paint thinner and solvent, I hate to think now what it did to our insides. I wanted to get a boyfriend and get married. After all, my mother had her first baby when she was 13. But I was the unfortunate victim of enuresis (involuntary urination, resulting in bed wetting). I worried night after night about going to bed with a man and drowning him. In the mornings, Id flip the mattress over the second I got up. I got so I could do it so fast! It sure didnt help the mattress, but it kept my secret. Because I didnt have any shoes that fit, Missy bought me ugly brogans, a heavy dark brown ankle-high work shoe with latches on the side. She said I would wear out good shoes too fast. So I wore my Sunday shoes to school and, sure enough, they were worn out. At evening church, the rule was that children went to the front. But since I didnt have shoes, I couldnt bear to be seen in brogans. I ran all the way to New Town, several miles away, to my Uncle Charlies house. Aunt Jill! Aunt Jill! This is me. Whats the matter, Tannie? I cant take any more of Mrs. Ill Treatment. Uncle Charlie said, This is my dead sisters child. Youre a good girl, Annie Mae. Jill, fix her a bed to sleep in and something to eat. I was 13 years old and just two weeks into the ninth grade. How painful it was to have to drop out of school. Id was to study Latin: Caesar, Cicero, and Virgil. Those were the four areas. Id just gotten into Caesar and learned that famous speech: All Gaul is divided into four parts. I had done so wellall As, and it hurt so bad to see my classmates getting to go to school while I was doing nothing. I yearned to go so badly. But Id told Aunt Jill I would not be a financial burden, so I went to a neighbor, Mrs. Thomas, who also took in laundry, and asked for a job. Her granddaughter, Julia, was my best buddy. She and I used to compete in Latin and algebra for those A grades. We both were top students. Now I would have to ask Julia what went on in school, and she tried to help me keep up. Well, my Aunt Bay said I had to give all the money I earned to her. She told me, I want you to go over to that old mans house, Mr. Wright, and straighten up the kitchen. When I got home, she asked me whether he had canisters out on the counter. She said she had heard Mr. Wright kept money in cans, and that I was to look for it. I refused to go back again. So I told her brother, Uncle Charlie. He got right down on her for that. Because I refused, Aunt Bay told me I couldnt ever come back to her house. With money I earned, she had bought me pink organdy material and got a seamstress to make me a beautiful dress. But after she forbid me to go there again, she went over to Uncle Charlies and took back my one good dress. She told Aunt Jill she would not give it back to me. That was the last night of my childhood. At 13 I ran off to look for a joband the man of my dreamsmake that nightmares!
braid down her back and white dresses
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