Who ever knew a Johnson with a quick tongue? Who can even imagine me looking a strange white man in the eye? It seems to me I have talked to them always with one foot raised in flight, with my head turned in whichever way is farthest from them. Dee, though. She would always look anyone in the eye.
How long ago was it the house burned? Ten, twelve years? Sometimes I can still hear the flames and feel Maggie’s arms sticking to me, her hair smoking and her dress falling off her in little black papery flakes. Her eyes seemed stretched open, blazed open by the flames reflected in them. And Dee…Why don’t you dance around the ashes? I’d wanted to ask her. She had hated that house so much.
She used to read to us without pity; forcing words, lies, other folks’ habits, whole lives upon us two, sitting trapped and ignorant underneath her voice. She washed us in a river of make-believe, burned us with a lot of knowledge we didn’t necessarily need to know. Pressed us to her with the serious way she read, to shove us away at just the moment, like dimwits, we seemed about to understand.
I never had an education myself. After second grade the school closed down. Don’t ask me why: in 1927 colored asked fewer questions than they do now.
A dress down to the ground, in this hot weather. A dress so loud it hurts my eyes… Earrings gold, too, and hanging down to her shoulders. Bracelets dangling and making noises when she moves to shake the folds of her dress out of her armpits. The dress is loose and flows, and as she walks closer, I like it.
She stoops down quickly and lines up picture after picture of me sitting there in front of the house with Maggie cowering behind me. She never takes a shot without making sure the house is included. When a cow comes nibbling around the edge of the yard she snaps it and me and Maggie and the house.
‘What happened to Dee?’ I wanted to know.
‘She’s dead,’ Wangero said. ‘I couldn’t bear it any longer, being named after the people who oppress me.’
You didn’t even have to look close to see where hands pushing the dasher up and down to make butter had left a kind of sink in the wood. In fact, there were a lot of small sinks; you could see where thumbs and fingers had sunk into the wood. It was a beautiful light yellow wood, from a tree that grew in the yard where Big Dee and Stash lived.
Maggie can’t appreciate those quilts! ...She’s probably backward enough to put them into everyday use.
‘You just don’t understand,’ she said, as Maggie and I came out to the car.
‘What don’t I understand?’ I wanted to know.
‘Your heritage,’ she said.