Authors: Andrea Davis Pinkney
The Diary of
Dawnie Rae Johnson
With the Might of Angels
This book is dedicated to the legacies of
Thurgood Marshall and George E. Bragg.
It’s early, before the sun even knows she’s got sleep in her eyes. With the way the heat is already rising, Mama will no doubt say this morning is as hot as the day I was born.
Folks in Lee County still talk about me coming into this world. “Someday you’ll put it in a book,” Daddy likes to say.
Well, thanks to Goober, I now have a book to write in.
The best way to tell about something is from the beginning. Even in a diary book that’s private, and for my eyes only, it’s good for me to write about myself from the start — to claim this book as really, truly mine. In case anyone ever finds my diary, they’ll know about me.
Mama said I was born right as the new day was dawning. Came into this world during the “in-between,” when night is changing to day, when morning starts to roll out like a pie crust. That’s why Mama and Daddy named me Dawn, after the in-between.
When Mama cradled me for the first time, she put my name to a song.
“Dawnie, Dawnie, sweet potato pie.”
The nickname stuck — Dawnie.
My middle name, Rae, is the name Mama had before she married Daddy. She was Loretta Rae then. She’s Loretta Johnson now, the name of Daddy’s people, and my name, too. Dawnie Rae Johnson.
When I was born, I came on strong like the sun, and, Mama says, “Loudest baby to ever cry in Hadley Hospital.”
“You were shouting good news,” says Daddy. “You’ve been blessed with the gift of gab ever since.”
One thing about being born when the sun’s about to rise — and being named after that time of day—is that I always beat the morning. When my eyes are wide open, the sun is still deciding to sleep for five minutes more.
This morning when I woke, I was hard-pressed to wait even five minutes for anything. The first chorus of bullfinches were welcoming May with their song. Seems those happy birds knew it was my birthday. And thanks to Goober, my celebrating had already started.
As soon as I felt this hard, flat square pressing up through my pillow, I knew Goober had done something special. Goober is
He can sure rattle me plenty, but he knows how to make me happy, too. Only eight years old, and full of surprises. During the morning’s in-between, I yanked this diary book out from under my half-’sleep head.
When I got to the kitchen, I was all smiles. Goober was there with Mama and Daddy. He’d lined up his peanut shells along the edge of our kitchen table, nose-to-tail, in a parade.
Most likely it was Goober who’d propped my pogo stick on one side of my chair, and my baseball bat on the other.
Goober spotted the book in my hand right off.
“Dawnie,” he said, “I made it for you special. It’s a diary for your birthday.”
is sure right. This diary is small and square, and put together like two slices of dark toast pressed into a sandwich. Its spine has been sewn with thick twine. The pages are rough at the edges, but there are plenty of them for writing. I named my birthday gift as soon as I held it — Diary Book. Thick as a brick, and sure hefty. Lots of gristle on this book’s bones. Just like me.
At breakfast, I ran my fingers along my diary’s bumpy spine.
this?” I said to Goober.
“Mama helped me,” Goober said.
“We know how much you like to write.” Mama looked as proud as Goober.
Goober rocked in his chair, set the chair’s back legs up to tilting. Then he handed me another gift: a new red pencil, with a plump eraser.
“For the bestest sister,” Goober said.
the bestest, Goober,” I said, then hugged him. “Thank you.”
I sure don’t know why people say Goober is slow. I think he’s as regular as anybody, only different in certain ways. Mama’s tried to explain it to me, but I have a hard time understanding. “Your brother’s one of God’s beautiful creatures.
came here with the gift of talk. Goober’s gift is that he sees the world in his own way.”
There’s nothing wrong with Goober’s eyesight. Sometimes he won’t look at you when he speaks. But my brother can no doubt see fine.
Some kids say Goober’s addle-brained. Others say he’s touched in the head, or a simpleton. To me, Goober’s just special.
My little brother’s given name is Gunther Johnson. But the boy loves peanuts, so we’ve been forever calling him Goober. Most days his pockets
bulge with peanuts and their shells. His skin is the same brown as a peanut, too. “And he’s just as pudgy.” My daddy always winks when he says this.
Daddy works nights mostly, hauling and loading milk casks and cheese crates from the backs of trucks at Sutter’s Dairy, the biggest dairy supply in all of Lee County.
Daddy leaves for work after supper, returns right before morning, eats breakfast with us, then reads his stack of newspapers before he sleeps. This morning, like always, Daddy was deep in his reading. Didn’t look up once. That’s Daddy. He reads like words on a page are the tastiest plate of grits ever.
“You get that from him, Dawnie,” Mama says. “The two of you read faster than drinking root beer through a straw. And you, child, take in book learning just as quickly.”
Mama’s right. At school I’m quicker than most kids.
Daddy can’t get enough of his newspapers and magazines. He stacks them all next to his coffee cup —
an NAACP journal called
and our local paper, the
Daddy even somehow gets his hands on that
Northerner newspaper the
New York Times.
This morning when I sat down, Daddy took a break from his breakfast reading. The little smile playing in his eyes told me a surprise was brewing. He studied me for a long moment. “Happy birthday, Dawnie.”
Then he pushed that New York paper under my nose. “Here, child.”
He was eager to show me the front-page headline. “Clip this for your new diary.”
I looked carefully.
Daddy told me to read what I saw. He said, “Speak loud enough to scare some pigeons.”
I read slowly, pressing each word into the warm morning air.
Seems Mama already knew the news.
Didn’t take her but a minute to hand me a pair of scissors from her sewing basket and a tin of paste from her craft bin.
“Make your birthday book look pretty,” Goober said.
Nobody even had to tell me what to do. I knew right off why those scissors and paste brush were suddenly in my hands.
I’ve carefully glued the headline right here as a memory of the day I turned twelve.
HIGH COURT BANS
Washington, May 17
I want to tell you everything. I could write all night about today, but Mama has already given me two warnings. “Dawnie, lights off. It’s past nine o’clock!”
At school, kids and teachers were talking about integration, and what it said in that New York paper. I even heard our principal, Mr. Calhoun, say, “An ice storm will fall on the tropics before any white folks let us into their schools.”
I could write more, but Mama’s calling for the third time. “Dawnie, turn off that light!” I’ll put you under my pillow where I first found you. You can share the spot with my birthday candle, the last one to lose its flame from my blowing. Mama says the final candle to go out is the one that makes your wish come true.
I’ll be back at you soon, Diary Book.
Catch you during the in-between.
Today Yolanda and me didn’t come right home after school, like we’re supposed to. I mean, this
my birthday week, and I
make a wish on the candles Mama had put on my cake at supper on Tuesday. I didn’t need those candles for wishing, though. I’ve had the same wish for as long as I can remember — to see the inside of Prettyman Coburn, Hadley’s white school.
Mama and Daddy have told me time and again that I am never to go to the white part of town without them.
Daddy once said, “If I ever get wind of you going over there, your behind will wonder if it can grow skin again.”
But I wasn’t really going to be
the white part of town, I was just passing
the white part of town so that I could see Prettyman.
Yolanda and me took the long way home. Really, it wasn’t even
the way home, but it
long. Truth be told (since this is my diary, I can be honest), Prettyman is way on the other
side of Hadley, nowhere near to where we live.
By walking the main streets, it takes just about one whole hour to walk the two miles to Prettyman from our neighborhood. It’s less than half that time when you take shortcuts.
Even though this was the long way home, it was the shortest way to get to Prettyman. Yolanda and I walked along Weedle Lane, which brought us through the piney woods, up behind Prettyman, where the sports field meets the railroad tracks. The grass is high and yellow there, and thick with weeds. I had my pogo stick stretched across the backs of my shoulders, arms hung over each end.
I nudged Yolanda. “Look at that baseball field!” I said.
“It’s like something from a movie,” Yolanda said.
I blinked. “They even have a dugout.”
“And padded bases,” Yolanda said.
We stayed low in the grasses.
I saw a girl come out Prettyman’s back door and unlatch a bell from a hook on the school’s bricks. She looked to be my same age. She walked around the side of the building to the front, holding the bell. The bell was no bigger than a teacup, but when she waved it, it sure clanged loudly. That
bell’s sound was as beautiful as the sight of the baseball field.
“You hear that, Dawnie?”
“They must ring that same bell when you step off a cloud to enter heaven,” I said.
I’m as awake as a hooty owl on this black night, thinking about Prettyman’s baseball field. I’ve been trying to sleep, but over and over, I keep seeing the same moving picture in my mind: Me, Dawnie Rae, rounding the bases on Prettyman’s baseball diamond. Can you imagine anything better? I wouldn’t be surprised if those bases were made of
Here are a few more things I want to write about me, to make this diary truly mine. Folks call me a “hay girl,” or a “coal catcher.” That’s the same as calling me a tomboy. People can say what they want. They’re mostly right in thinking I’m not scared of getting dirty. Hay and coal don’t bother me. Neither do dirt, night crawlers, bugs, or even the smell of rotten eggs.
Running fast and hard makes me happier than
a grasshopper at a jump-rope contest, and I swim as good as any frog.
I’m nimble, too. I can wrestle a knot free from a tangle of shoelaces, trap a moth by its wing with two of my fingers, and clear the hedge that separates our yard from Marietta Street, where we live.
I’ve never liked dresses or shoes that shine. Even if I were going to meet President Dwight D. Eisenhower himself, I’d show up to shake his hand in dungarees and Keds. Don’t stick me in starched skirts or anything with a ruffle, except on Sundays when Mama insists that I look “correct” for church.
As much as it hurts to wear one of the three dresses or two skirts I own, I do it sometimes for Mama and Daddy, and for Goober, who likes to say, “Dresses show your strong ankles, Dawnie.”
What’s really “correct” is what suits a person best. And what suits me is playing baseball. More than anything, I want to be part of the All-American Girls Baseball League, a group of women baseball players. But there are no Negroes playing in the AAGBBL. Not a single one.
Someday I will write a letter to Jackie Robinson, second baseman for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and
the first Negro baseball player to play in the modern major leagues, to see if he can help get me into the AAGBBL.
If anybody would know how to break in, Jackie would. Used to be that Major League Baseball didn’t allow colored players. Jackie changed all that. He stepped over what folks called “the color line,” and added some
to the major leagues.
Anyway, for now, I’ll have to keep batting in Orem’s Pasture, down past Yolanda’s house at the place where Ebert Street meets up with Landleton Avenue.
Things at school are getting stranger and stranger. I’m glad we’ve only got a few weeks to go before summer break.
Today Mr. Calhoun called me and two other kids into his office. Yolanda, Roger Wilkes, and I slid onto the bench that faced Mr. Calhoun’s desk.
Mr. Calhoun was looking mostly at me, it seems. Before he could even speak, I defended myself for what I thought I’d done bad. “Mr. Calhoun, I swear, the only reason I brought my pogo stick into school today was because yesterday
when I left it out, there was bird plop all over the handle. Geese are coming back to Virginia from farther south, and they’re having a welcome home party.”