There was the cloudy notion of hunger when I breathed the odor of new-cut, bleeding grass. And there was the quiet terror that suffused my senses when vast hazes of gold washed earthward from star-heavy skies on silent nights . . .
You owe a debt you can never pay.
Being sorry can’t make that kitten live again.
I was a drunkard in my sixth year, before I had begun school. With a gang of children, I roamed the streets, begging pennies from passers-by, haunting the doors of saloons . . . .
Blot it [she said].
I could not lift my hand. I knew what she had said; I knew what she wanted me to do; and I had heard her correctly. I wanted to look at her and say something, tell her why I could not move; but my eyes were fixed upon the floor.
. . . My father was a black peasant who had gone to the city seeking life, but who had failed in the city; a black peasant whose life had been hopelessly snarled in the city, and who had at lest fled the city—that same city which had . . . borne me toward alien and undreamed-of shores of knowing.
Whenever I thought of the essential bleakness of black life in America, I knew that Negroes had never been allowed to catch the full spirit of Western civilization, that they lived somehow in it but not of it.
The next day Granny said emphatically that she knew who had ruined me, that she knew I had learned about “foul practices” from reading Ella’s books, and when I asked what “foul practices” were, my mother beat me afresh.
Mama, is Granny white?
If you’ve got eyes, you can see what color she is.
I mean, do the white folks think she’s white?
Why don’t you ask the white folks that?
But you know.
Why should I know? I’m not white.
Granny looks white. Then why is she living with us colored folks?
Don’t you want Granny to live with us?
There was no funeral. There was no music. There was no period of mourning. There were no flowers. There were only silence, quiet weeping, whispers, and fear.
Why are there so many black men wearing stripes?
It’s because . . . Well, they’re harder on black people.
For weeks I wondered what it was that “uncle” had done, but I was destined never to know, not even in all the years that followed.
Christmas came and I had but one orange. I was hurt and would not go out to play with the neighborhood children who were blowing horns and shooting firecrackers. . . . Just before going to bed, I ate it, first taking a bite out of the top and sucking the juice from it as I squeezed it; finally I tore the peeling into bits and munched them slowly.
Out of the family conferences it was decided that my brother and I would be separated, that it was too much of a burden for any one aunt or uncle to assume the support of both of us. Where was I to go? Who would take me?
All right, I’ll send you home Saturday. Tell me, where did you learn those words Jody heard you say?
I looked at him and did not answer . . . . How could I have told him that I had learned to curse before I had learned to read? How could I have told him that I had been a drunkard at the age of six?
You’re just mad at me for something!
Don’t tell me I’m mad!
You’re too mad to believe anything I say.
Don’t speak to me like that!
Then how can I talk to you? You beat me for throwing walnuts on the floor! But I didn’t do it!
Daily I went into my room upstairs, locked the door, knelt, and tried to pray, but everything I could think of saying seemed silly.
I burned at my studies. At the beginning of the school term I read my civics and English and geography volumes through and only referred to them when in class. I solved all my mathematical problems far in advance; then, during school hours, . . . I read tattered, second-hand copies of Flynn’s Detective Weekly or the Argosy All-Story Magazine.
Uncle Tom, Granny says to come at once. Grandpa’s dead.
You certainly are a prize fool. Don’t you know that that’s no way to tell a person that his father’s dead?
I ran all the way out here . . . I’m out of breath. I’m sorry.
What grade are you in school?
Then why are you going to school?
Well, I want to be a writer.
Son, you ought to be more serious. You’re growing up now and you won’t be able to get jobs if you let people think that you’re weak-minded. Suppose the superintendent of schools would ask you to teach here in Jackson, and he found out that you had been writing stories?
Do you want me to break your neck? Didn’t I tell you to stay away from him? That boy’s a dangerous fool, I tell you. Then why don’t you keep away from him? And make the other children keep away from him!
Look, Dick, you’re throwing away your future here in Jackson. Go to the principal, talk to him, take his speech and say it. I’m saying the one he wrote. So why can’t you? What the hell? What can you lose?
I reached my hands higher. They searched my pockets and packages. They seemed dissatisfied when they could find nothing incriminating.
Boy, tell your boss not to send you out in white neighborhoods at this time of night.
The words and actions of white people were baffling signs to me. I was living in a culture and not a civilization and I could learn how that culture worked only by living with it. Misreading the reactions of whites around me made me say and do the wrong things.
I worked twenty years and bought this house myself. I’d be happy when I died if I thought Bess had a husband like you.
I wondered what on earth this Mencken had done to call down upon him the scorn of the South. The only people I had ever heard denounced in the South were Negros, and this man was not a Negro. . . Undoubtedly he must be advocating ideas that the South did not like.
The plots and stories in the novels did not interest me so much as the point of view revealed. I gave myself over to each novel without reserve, without trying to criticize it; it was enough for me to see and feel something different.
Yet, deep down, I knew that I could never really leave the South, for my feelings had already been formed by the South, for there had been slowly instilled into my personality and consciousness, black though I was, the culture of the South. So, in leaving, I was taking a part of the South to transplant in alien soil, to see if it could grow differently, if it could drink of new and cool rains, and bend in strange winds . . . .