The Newport News shipyards were a magnet for working men from around the South, and provided decades of employment for the Bacchus side. Daniel worked there; so would Daniel Junior, later called Son; so would one of Daniel's son-in-laws, and several of his grandchildren. Appropriately, Daniel met my grandmother, Berneda Wilkins, who had also been raised in North Carolina, while working in the Newport News shipyards.
His steady income as a chipper at the Newport News shipyard enabled Daniel to buy a house in a nice Negro neighborhood and raise a family of five. The last of those children was a tiny little girl who was almost named Alabama, after an aunt, but instead ended up with the distinctive name “Arizona.” In truth, she was so small that when her brother Rudolph first saw her, he exclaimed, “baby doll,” and the “Doll” part stuck. At the time Arizona “Doll” Bacchus was born, her oldest sister, Cecelia, was already married, had had children, and was living in a Southern version of public housing known as Newsome Park.
Doll would become all too familiar with Newsome Park after two life-altering tragedies that occurred when she was seven years old. In the summer of 1943 her oldest brother, Son, was riding his bike with little brother Rudolph on the handlebars, and Doll balancing sideways on the bike. When Rudolph tipped forward at a stop, all three Bacchus kids fell to the ground. Somehow a spoke on the front wheel got jammed into the inner thigh of Doll's right leg, digging deep, and scarring her down to the knee. Due to the poor treatment she received at the local hospital, this childhood injury would trouble my mother the rest of her life.
That was bad, but that winter things became terrible. On the night of January 19, 1944, the family celebrated Berneda Bacchus's forty-eighth birthday. My mother remembers it as a fun evening, with all of her family enjoying ice cream and cake in the living room. The next morning she was awakened by the sound of screaming. It was a familiar voice. Her mother was yelling, “Help! I'm on fire!” Smoke poured into her bedroom. In the hallway she, three of her siblings (Son, Frances, and Rudolph), and a boarder, Mary McQueen, found the staircase blocked by smoke and fire. Son jumped out of the second-floor window and then stood on the ground as Rudolph and the women jumped down into his arms. Once on the ground, they turned and witnessed a frightening sightâthe charred body of Berneda Bacchus.
The headline in the local newspaper read, “Kerosene Blast Fatal to Woman.” The lead paragraph said, “Berneda Bacchus, 48, Negro, wife of Daniel Bacchus of 714 19th Street, was burned to death this morning by the explosion of kerosene she was pouring into her kitchen stove.” Firemen had received the alarm at 8:14 A.M. and “found the victim where she had fallen between the porch and the gate. She was dead, but her body was still burning. Dr. Louis Loeb, city physician, said it was the worst case of that type he had ever seen.” The firemen found a five-gallon kerosene can with its bottom blasted out. The large can was apparently filled with gas fumes, which ignited when held over the stove. According to the fire department, this type of accident was very typical in the days of kerosene and cast-iron stoves. My mother remembers standing with her brothers and sisters next to my grandmother as she took her last breaths. Ma says she looked up and counted out “One, two, three, four,” gazed at her four youngest offspring, and then closed her eyes forever.
My mother went to live in Newsome Park with her oldest sister, Cecelia, her husband, Eugene, aka Cootie, and their three kidsâJackie, Teddy, and Gertrude. She was technically their aunt, but they were all around the same age and grew up more like brothers and sisters.
Cecelia's husband, Cootie, worked at the shipyard, and was, when he was sober, a quiet, hardworking man. But drink put the devil in him, making him bad tempered and abusive toward Cecelia. Despite years of physical harm, she wouldn't let her sons intervene. Ma watched this relationship for years, and though she revered Ceceila and viewed her as a second mother, vowed never to allow herself to be treated that way by a man.
At twelve my mother moved in with her father and his second wife, Viola. The tale of their courtship is told often, and with no affection, by the Bacchus clan. Apparently Viola had been after my grandfather even before Berneda's death, and wooed him immediately afterward. My grandfather was a dapper man and a hard worker who owned his own homeâa good catch. Still, it was a shock when he married her just six months after Grandma's burial. It happened so fast that everyone claimed Miss Viola had “worked the roots” on Daniel Bacchus (aka, used witchcraft to win his heart). The tale that's come down to me, from both my mother and her siblings, is that she was a two-faced woman who showed one side to her new husband and another to his kids.
My mother and uncle Rudolph, both of whom lived at home as teenagers, talk about Miss Viola locking away food when Daniel wasn't home, and denying them meals unless he was present. My mother, who continued to suffer greatly from her injured leg, says she would tell the adolescent girl, “You're gonna be a cripple. You'll never walk right again.” She'd also make fun of Berneda, taunting my mother by saying, “Your mother wasn't nothing, and you'll be nothing, too.”
This psychological abuse wouldn't have amounted to anything if it wasn't for Daniel's attitude. In the many arguments that ensued between his children and his new wife, my grandfather always sided with Viola. My mother suspects that he may have confronted her behind closed doors, but that was no comfort then, when she felt abandoned by her father.
Left without her mother, and with an unresponsive father and busy older siblings, she created imaginary friends. Ella and Joe Bella kept her company, and provided entertaining companionship. Despite her leg problems, she was a bright student, well liked by her classmates, and had an adorable smile and a big infectious laugh.
Nelson Elmer and James came back from overseas duty in 1956. James loved the discipline of the army life, and saw opportunities in it that didn't yet exist for black men in most other American institutions. So James became a career soldier, staying in the armed forces until he retired as a colonel in the 1980s. His brother Nelson, in contrast, would rise to the rank of sergeant before mustering out and seeking his fortune in civilian life; he was given the nickname Little Nip, because his yellow complexion reminded other soldiers of their Korean adversaries, whom they routinely ridiculed by calling them “Nips” (a racial insult held over from World War II).
As teenagers in Newport News, my mother had become friendly with James, and even fancied him a bit; but when Nelson Elmer came home he chased after her. His timing was great. She had just finished her sophomore year at Virginia Union University and, as much as she wanted to stay in college, her relationship with Viola and her father was deteriorating. Small and feisty, she was determined to make a place for herself in the world, with or without her father's support.
My father and mother started dating in August 1956. By December they were married, and living in a roomy Bedford-Stuyvesant brownstone in Brooklyn with her aunt Alberta and uncle J.T. When she got pregnant in early 1957 they moved into a nicely maintained three-story rental building at 218 New York Avenue in Crown Heights, a block from a big Baptist church on a pretty, tree-lined street. I was born nine months after their marriage, in the fall of 1957, when my father was working at the post office via the GI bill, and my mother was a happy young housewife. Unfortunately, little Nelson Daryle (that's me) missed all the good times and went on to become a statistic.
From 1880 to 1960, United States government census figures tell us that approximately 30 percent of all black children under fourteen lived in homes with only one parent. The number for white American families during that same period was roughly 10 percent, so there is a long-standing difference in these patterns. But what's most significant for me is the consistency in the number of single-parent black households. From Reconstruction through the long years of lynching, and in and out of two world wars, the patterns of single-parent black family life remained stable. The majority of these families were headed by black women, which eventually gave rise to the clichÃ© of the “strong black woman.” But that number also means that 70 percent of all black families had both parents present. That was the world my great-grandparents and grandparents, despite whatever personal issues they had, held together in the face of racism, civil inequality, and plain old personal drama.
It is the census figures released in 1960, however, that foreshadowed a grim future.
The percentage of single parent black families in the 1960 census is 32.3, the highest then recorded. Later reports reveal the subsequent family disaster: In 1980, 53 percent, and in 1990, 63 percent of black children under fourteen were being raised by one parent. So my parents' separation, while personally traumatic, was also part of a larger change in black behavior, one that would lead the generations after me to joke “my biological didn't bother” about their absent fathers. When our family splintered in the early sixties, we didn't know we were harbingers of the future, where the idea of black family would be in a state of constant flux and redefinition.
I am in the living room of apartment 6C in the Samuel J. Tilden housing projects located in the once Jewish, soon to be black and Puerto Rican, ghetto of Brownsville, Brooklyn. It is 1960. I am four. I am slender, with big round cheeks and long, curly eyelashes that keep getting into my eyes. I stand on my tiptoes in my stocking feet. I wear pajama pants and a small white T-shirt. My small brown fingers clutch the edge of a Motorola high-fidelity stereo, which is made of shiny lacquered wood and has a lemony smell, from the polish my mother applies every Saturday afternoon.
I feel the bass speakers in my stomach. I smell the polish. I feel the music. Looking over the edge, down into the bowels of the hi-fi, I watch the turntable needle roll across the grooves of a seven-inch record with a blue and white label at 45 revolutions per minute. The song is “Please Mr. Postman” by the Marvelettes. The song is on Motown Records, but I don't know that yet. All I know is that the song is about the man who delivers the mail in a light blue uniform, who possesses an amazing set of jingling keys that opens the long row of metal mailboxes in the lobby.
As much as I enjoy “Please Mr. Postman,” I'm anxious to hear the next record. Not just because it's Roy Orbison's “Oh, Pretty Woman” (which is the first record I ever asked my mother to buy for me), but because above “Mr. Postman” on the turntable are a slew of seven-inch singles suspended around a fat brown cylinder. Once “Please Mr. Postman” finishes, the needle arm moves away, a single vinyl 45 plops down on the turntable, and the needle returns, catching the groove and sending the “doom-doom-doom-doom-doom” rhythm of “Oh, Pretty Woman” vibrating through my body.