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Authors: Debra J. Dickerson

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BOOK: An American Story
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For all his ferocity, though, he was also the man who fell in love with a photo and made up nonsense songs for his kids. Apropos of nothing, he'd drop to the floor and pump out innumerable push-ups for our amazement. He used to run up and down the block with us dangling from his biceps. He was a shameless poser and show-off and we loved him for it.

Though both my parents, like millions of black Americans, made a conscious choice to thumb their noses at Jim Crow by migrating, in the end only Mama was able to leave her anger at the Mason-Dixon line. Daddy brought Jim Crow with him. He smuggled it in, a stowaway in his heart, an overstuffed duffel bag about to burst at the seams.


None of us six kids were born down South, but we might as well have been. Beginning in 1948 with JoAnn, followed by Dorothy in 1955, Wina in 1957, me in 1959, Necie in 1960, and ending in 1963 with Bobby, we were Southerners through and through, whatever our Northern address might have told the world about us. We slopped up Karo “serp” with white bread and called it breakfast. We crumbled up cornbread in our buttermilk and called it dessert. We insulted each other's mothers and called it “playin the dozens” without a clue that we were perpetuating the tradition of slave auctioneers comically wholesaling our least desirable forebears by “the dozens” to the steady beat of their wallet-loosening insults. We were country when country wasn't cool.

For all their differences, both parents brought the same country ways from the South, as did everyone else we knew. Most of all, that meant their Southern Baptist fundamentalism. We couldn't play cards (tools of the devil) or games with dice in them (like Monopoly). Nor, for example, could we accuse anyone of lying; instead, they were “tellin a story.” Anyone born into a generation before yours was “ma'am” or “sir.” If Mama could hear us through the open windows “loud-talkin” (ever the sorceress, she could sort our voices out among all the summer shouting of children), we had to come in from play and sit quietly “like ladies.” If she called to us and we answered “What?” or “Yeah?” instead of “Ma'am?” we were, at a minimum, called to her for a smack. The rod was not spared and the child was not spoiled.

We were in church each Wednesday night for choir practice, and from 8
on Sunday until 3:00 in the afternoon, longer if folks got to shouting. Neighbors we knew as taxi drivers and janitors mounted the pulpit on Sunday to lead flocks sometimes numbering in the hundreds. Few of them were ordained, fewer had any religious instruction at all. Some were illiterate. But all that mattered to us was whether or not Brother So-and-so could preach—and boy could they.

I heard sermons containing impromptu riffs composed entirely of punch lines from commercials (“Jesus'll be yo Cok-Cola: He the real thang!”) and pop songs (“Y'all better stop! in the name of His love”). Our church was full of rituals no one could explain. I'd chase the minister down after services full of questions: What does the “Missionary” in Emmanuel Missionary Baptist Church mean? Why ring those bells at those particular moments and what do they signify? Why do we call those funereal, a capella dirgelike hymns that the whole congregation sings together, “Dr. Watts”? During the service, from the choir stand, I had hours to look out over the congregation at the back wall with its mural of a blindingly blond Jesus suffering nobly on the cross, the only white man for miles.

I didn't mind church back then, it was just another of the inexorable rhythms of our closed little world. Poindexter that I was, I even liked Sunday school, if only because it provided me with a second set of kids to compete against. There, I was always the only kid who'd not only done the homework but had gone for extra credit besides. I got pinched a lot when grandmotherly Sister Bibbs wasn't looking.

Our religion went everywhere with us even as it never left our home. When we took our seats for meals, Daddy blessed the table in the same manner each time. He, of course, sat at the head of the table, his back to the sink and window. Mama sat at the opposite end. I sat to his right, Bobby next to me, and Necie next to him. (Bobby was left-handed, so we had elbow wars for many years, but I wouldn't give up my seat next to Daddy.) Dorothy, Wina, and JoAnn sat on Daddy's left.

“HeavenlyFatherwedohumblythankThee [breathe] forwhatwe're abouttoreceive [breathe] forthenourishmentofourbodies [breathe] for Christ's sake Amen.”

We'd recited this prayer so many times, the punctuation marks and capital letters had all worn away and the words had rearranged themselves so as to best match Daddy's breathing patterns. When he was away from home, as he often was with his truck on long hauls, Mama designated someone to bless the table. Invariably, they phrased it with all Daddy's worn-away edges, whatever our own natural rhythm might have been. I can't recite that blessing even now without doing it exactly the way Daddy did for so many years.

After Daddy said the magic words, we went around the table and each person recited a Bible verse. Usually, everyone said the shortest one in the Bible: “Jesus wept.” Even on a school field trip, you were expected to mumble this incantation over your dried bologna sandwich and shriveled apple. Without reflection, I always did, as did all the other kids in our neighborhood except the pariahs, the ones from slovenly, non-churchgoing homes; where I lived, no one was ever teased for blessing their paper-sack lunch or bag of potato chips. I never doubted the truth of Mama's warning that unblessed food would give us a stomachache. It wasn't a punishment but simple cause and effect: step out into traffic and get hit by a car. Skip the blessing and get a stomachache. But I rarely said “Jesus wept.”

I would spend hours with the Bible before dinner, finding long, twisty verses full of archaic language. Then I'd recite them when my turn came to say a verse. No one would dare interrupt a recitation from the Bible, so I got to orate for as long as I liked. At first, I looked up the most common ones, just to make sure the ministers were getting them right. Then I searched for interesting ones about wars or funny stories. But soon, I was interested merely in length and complexity. All around me I could hear stomachs growling and Mama sighing. I was often kicked under the table, but nothing would stop me from “winning” at the verse. Often, I'd end my orations with a vocal flourish and a derisive “Jesus wept.”

In the mid-1950s, with JoAnn and Dorothy born, my family was still so new to the North that they had to give up raising pet rabbits in the backyard because the neighbors ate them. The rabbits would have had to go anyway eventually as my father's junk began to take over more and more of the backyard.

He'd long since turned the basement into a dark catacomb filled with long-forgotten crates that, even so, could not be parted with. Ever the orphan required to survive by his wits, what seemed like trash to other people looked like pennies from heaven to him. An irredeemable pack rat and independent trucker always operating on a shoestring, he kept the yard filled with transmissions and dead batteries, cannibalized trucks and cars teetering on bricks, piles of mismatched hubcabs and lots of unidentifiable, greasy gizmos, all of which he was confident he would one day put to use. When
Sanford & Son
aired in the 1970s, the other kids would torment us by humming the theme as my father passed by. But when I was a child, his junk piles were a paradise full of fun stuff to play with and cozy hiding places to curl up in with a book.

Driving anywhere with Daddy was an adventure when I was small. I loved the station wagons he created for us from the varied parts of many other sacrificial cars. We never knew what we'd be riding in, but there were some constants: multicolored bodies with mismatched tires and doors that almost fit. Missing windows replaced with cardboard we thought was there for us to draw on, missing floorboards we could drag our Keds out of when Mama wasn't looking. More often than not, we'd end up getting to play alongside the road while Daddy jogged up the highway to the nearest gas station for water to pour into a radiator on its last legs or ripped up old rags to secure a muffler. People honked and pointed at us as we passed; it felt special, like being part of a circus caravan.

He would pull the car over—whether we were on a side road or jam-packed Highway 70—and pick up any box, bag, or jug that looked likely. Whatever it contained, Daddy would bring it home with us. Whatever its condition, he made us use it. This included a box of key blanks; toilet paper rain-swollen to volleyball size and notebook paper consistency; a shampoo so tarlike and viscous we knew it had been dumped on purpose; an armchair with actual bloodstains and tire marks.

Daddy's finds went far beyond car parts and household goods to include fancy toys discarded by the rich. They kept us in demand as playmates and made Daddy famous as a master magician who could make something from nothing. He loved the spotlight and showed off like a teenage boy deep in the throes of puberty. This he always managed to do in ways that accentuated his towering maleness—like extravagantly romancing his wife.

Many mornings when I was small, he smooched theatrically with my waitress mother before leaving to drive his truck. There in the darkness of our predawn kitchen, he would sneak up on her from the hallway with a soundlessness eerie for such a strapping man. He would sweep her up off her feet and into his arms for a loud, smacky kiss that bent her over backward and lifted her half a foot off the cracked linoleum. He winked at us over her shoulder and, one-handed, shook her gently like a rag doll just to show us that he could. The other hand undid her chaste bun and sent her hair tumbling down her back. Just like the ladies in the movies, Mama would squeak out little helpless protests about the bacon burning or the kids watching, but he never listened and she really didn't seem to mind.

On such a morning, one with big, smoochy kisses, he flipped his spare change at us for penny candy.

“Go get y'all some zoo-zoos and lollipops.” Smug, as if he were tossing gold doubloons to filthy urchins from the velvet-curtained windows of a royal coach. Mindless of our dignity, and enchanted by the nonsense words he was always inventing, we swarmed him, shoving for our God-given right to one sixth of any booty. When you're one of six, you snooze? You lose. Pride be damned.

Mama tsk-tsked.

“Eddie, caint you jes divide it up and give it to em?” She tried to swat us apart with her dishcloth.

“Nah. Good for em. In boot camp on Parris Island, they'd lock us in at night one rifle short.” He squinted evilly at Mama. “Guess who always had him a rifle come mornin.”

So there you have it. Sorcery and happy endings in one ear, fratricide and mortal combat in the other. But the turmoil inherent in these crosscurrents remained dormant then, back in the day. In the early years of my childhood the Dickersons were a happy family.


It was always summertime then, in the 1960s. Even my winter memories are warm. Keds and PF Flyers and bicycles whizzing by, drinking straws laced in the spokes for maximum annoyance. Eighty-five percent humidity. Vaseline dripping down bony legs fried charcoal from the sun. Scalp sweat making the edges of hot-combed hair “go back” to nappiness. Mamas in pink waitress, beige custodian, blue nurse's aide uniforms yelling through open windows, spatula in hand, the instant the streetlights came on. Captured fireflies shooting frenetic sparks of light from poorly scrubbed mayonnaise jars. The smell of greens and cornbread, black-eyed peas and cornbread, boiled cabbage and cornbread, butter beans and cornbread, fried green tomatoes and cornbread rumbling our stomachs with anticipatory pleasure as we made for home. Rubber-band rope, rock school, double Dutch. Mega hide-and-go-seek games involving thirty kids or more rolling themselves under cars and crouching on low roofs. Kids everywhere.

Not only did the seasons stay the same in St. Louis, neither did the neighborhood change. In the fifteen years my parents lived together on Terry Avenue, exactly one family moved out, exactly one moved in. Even the Dodds next door, the last white family for miles around, left the neighborhood only for his funeral and her entrance into a nursing home.

Their son Evan was the last white at Beaumont High, which was rapidly turning into one of the toughest schools in the city. He would sit placidly on our porch while we performed racial experiments on him: how red could a pinch make his skin, could his stringy hair be cornrowed, what effect would Vaseline, the Negro ur-unguent, have on it? Evan, a long-haired hippie freak, prowled the neighborhood in the hearse he'd refurbished, a gaggle of us kids stuffed inside. We took turns being the corpse, stretching out in the back while the others imitated the fat old ladies at funerals who bellowed their grief and tried to climb into the casket with the dearly departed.

On our block, no deed, good or bad, went unobserved. No deed, good or bad, went unreported. No village in China kept a closer eye on its inhabitants than did we. After I smarted off to Mr. Banks at the Clark gas station on the corner, my mother was waiting on the porch to slap my face and march me back the half block to apologize. The phone still jangled in its cradle.

On the other side of the Clark station was Kingshighway Avenue, running the length of the city north to south. We were very economical in our approach to it—we only used its northern end. To the south lay white St. Louis, as completely off-limits to us as if there were a second Grand Canyon there where Kingshighway crossed Forest Park. No one had to warn me to stay out of the south side just as no one had to warn me not to touch a hot stove. I didn't really understand that whites lived there, just that we couldn't. The only time we left our neighborhood was on Christmas Eve when Daddy took us to see the displays.

High on homemade sweets and overexcited by the magic of the Christmases Mama conjured for us then, we claimed the streets of our hometown for a night like victorious GIs on town pass. Those Christmas Eves sauntering around downtown St. Louis in the winter chill ogling the dazzling store windows and mechanical Santas were the only times I ever felt like a citizen. It was the only time we had full access to a nonblack neighborhood without having to worry, the only times we saw what the other 99 percent of America looked like and where all our tax dollars were going.

BOOK: An American Story
3.49Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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