Melba Pattillo Beals’s grandmother, India, believes that the Pattillo family is special. Due to their “good health and good brains,” she thinks they have an obligation to be of service to God and to lead others. Reflecting on “the nightmare that had surrounded [Melba’s] birth,” India believes that “destiny had assigned [Melba] a special task.” Melba’s mother, Lois, was one of the first black people to integrate the University of Arkansas, graduating in 1954.
According to Grandma India, the family’s lack of conformity to the codes and conventions of Jim Crow is not so much about an individual desire to be extraordinary, but rather is the result of their faith, which helps them see the injustice of Jim Crow and gives them the will to resist it. To show gratitude to God, they view themselves as servants of divine will, not as individualists.
Melba is born on December 7, 1941 on Pearl Harbor Day. Lois’s doctor injures Melba’s scalp, which results in “a massive infection.” Lois takes Melba to a white hospital that “reluctantly” treats the families of the black men who work on the railroad. A doctor operates to save her life “by inserting a drainage system beneath [her] scalp.” When Melba’s condition does not improve, Lois seeks help from nurses and doctors who do not take her concerns seriously.
Melba connects her life to historical events, both the wartime tragedy of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the personal tragedy that confronts her family when she faced death as an infant. While the United States fought the threat of tyranny in the Pacific, the Beals family fought the tyranny imposed on black people living under Jim Crow.
Two days after the operation, Melba comes down with a fever of 106 and starts convulsing. A black janitor finds Lois crying. She explains that Melba’s infection is getting worse. The janitor sympathizes and mentions that the surgeon’s prescription for Epsom salts and warm water must not have worked after all. When Lois searches for a nurse and mentions the doctor’s instructions, the nurse admits to hearing the directive, but says that they “don’t coddle niggers.” Lois does not argue with the nurse, out of fear of costing her husband, Howell, his job. She begins Melba’s treatment herself and, within two days, Melba’s condition improves.
Unable to rely on those who are responsible for Melba’s care, Lois realizes that only she can ensure Melba’s survival. Ironically, it is not a medical professional who provides Lois with the information that she needs to keep Melba alive, but a black janitor whose lack of power at the hospital mirrors Lois’s own sense of helplessness. Lois struggles with her desire to confront the nurses for their lethal indifference, but doesn’t want to cost her family its livelihood.
By the time Melba is four years old she starts asking questions about segregation, “which neither [her] mother nor grandmother cared to answer.” At the age of five, she has her first experience with Jim Crow. Her family gathers at Fair Park for a Fourth of July picnic. The black people who go to the park are to remain in a wooded section, away from the pool and the merry-go-round, but Melba sneaks away to ride the merry-go-round since she has saved pennies for months to ride one of the horses. When she goes to the concessionaire to give him her money, he refuses to let her ride and calls her a “picaninny.” The other people waiting in line stare at her angrily, as though she has done something wrong. She realizes that, no matter “how many saddles stood empty,” there would never be room for her on the merry-go-round.
Melba realizes that life under Jim Crow means that she will always be excluded from the things that white people are allowed to enjoy freely. This exclusion is of course the legacy of slavery, which is why the concessionaire refers to her as a “picanninny”—an enslaved child who picked cotton on plantations. Melba unexpectedly experiences this awakening to the realities of racism and segregation during the Fourth of July, a day on which Americans celebrate their freedom and independence from a tyranny—a power which Melba realizes still rules black people’s lives.
Melba grows up in a “big, old, white wood-frame house at 1121 Cross Street.” During her early childhood, she lives there with her mother, Lois, her grandmother, India, her father, Howell, and her younger brother, Conrad. In the front hallway, there are tall mahogany bookcases that hold volumes of Shakespeare, Chaucer, Emily Dickinson, James Weldon Johnson, and Langston Hughes. On some of the shelves are the textbooks that Melba’s mother uses to teach seventh-grade English and the books for “the night classes she [takes] to get her master’s degree.”
Melba’s home is described as a kind of sanctuary from the cruelties of the outside world. Moreover, it is also the place where she learns to value education. Her reading of the literature on the bookcases contributes both to her eloquence as she articulates her experience at Central to reporters, and to her awareness of her place within a broader human experience.
Grandma India spends a lot of her time in the kitchen, “scrubbing it sparkling clean or baking cornbread, simmering collard greens, or preparing her special gourmet salmon souffle.” India learned to cook “her fancy dishes” during her years “as a maid in white ladies’ kitchens on Park Hill.” During one of Melba’s private talks with her grandmother in India’s garden, Melba says that she wishes to exchange her black body for a white one. India insists that what Melba really wants is to be free. She encourages Melba to keep a diary so that she can share these thoughts with God.
What Melba does not want is a life of subservience, which is all that life under Jim Crow offers black people. This system has taught her to believe that to be white is to be free, while being black is to be unfree. However, many black people, such as her grandmother, used what they learned during their years of servitude to care for their families and to apply more creativity in their own domestic lives.
Melba’s father, Howell, works on the Missouri Pacific Railroad “as a hostler’s helper.” Lois constantly encourages him to return to school and finish the final course that he needs to get a bachelor’s degree but he refuses, saying that he prefers to work outside where he is free. Howell is an outdoorsman who loves hunting and fishing and being in the woods where he is left alone. Melba begins to worry that her parents’ differences will cause them to divorce, as her friend Carolyn’s parents did. Lois, on the other hand, remains determined to complete her master’s degree and studies for her night-school exams.
Melba’s parents, like many couples, have differing lifestyles. However, their lives are complicated by the pressures of being black in the South. Lois wants her husband to get a degree so that he will have access to the few professional opportunities available to black people. Howell’s idea of freedom has little to do with economic prosperity or education—more conventional paths to progress—and more to do with his experience of nature.
As Melba grows older, she notices how the adults around her live “with constant fear and apprehension.” They try to solve “the mystery of what white folks [expect] of them.” Melba feels shame when she watches adults in her family “kowtow to white people.” Her family tends to be especially worried when they go to Mr. Waylan’s grocery store. One Friday evening, the family goes on a shopping spree there with the money from their earnings from the week. When Howell looks over the bill, he notices that the family is overcharged by twenty-two dollars—more than a day’s pay. They mention it to Mr. Waylan who says that it is back payment for instances in which he sold them groceries on credit. When the family continues to protest, Mr. Waylan threatens not to sell them anymore groceries.
The incident at Mr. Waylan’s grocery store is exemplary of the way in which white people, particularly white business owners, use segregation laws to oppress and economically exploit black people. If they do not “kowtow” (that is, grovel) to whites and avoid questioning their authority, black people risk losing access to precious resources, such as food. The incident also depicts how normally pleasurable moments, such as shopping sprees, are easily spoiled by the cruel realities of Jim Crow, which allows whites to take black people’s hard-won income without black people having any recourse.
The family decides not to return to Mr. Waylan’s store, which only offers its black customers “day-old bread and slightly rotting meat for one and a half times the price fresh food was sold to white folks.” Grandma India calls all of her friends and tries to convince them to go to another store across town, but they are reluctant to do so, out of fear of causing trouble. Grandma India takes solace in her Bible and reads the following verse: “And Ethiopia shall stretch forth her wings.” She tells Melba that her life will be different. Melba is anxious for the change that her grandmother assures her will occur.
Though Grandma India has the will to challenge Mr. Waylan in the only way that she safely can—by depriving him of business—fear of white supremacy is so ingrained that her friends continue to shop at his store to avoid arousing suspicion of rebellion. Despite her friends’ typical timidity, which frustrates Grandma India, sending her to her Bible for solace, she remains certain that Melba’s generation will have more power to stand up for itself.