Authors: Jermaine Jackson
Mother learned how to make food last: a freezer was more essential than a car or a television in the black community. Make food in bulk, freeze it, thaw it, eat it. We often had the same meals over and over again: bowls of pinto beans and pinto soup, chicken, chicken and chicken, egg sandwiches, mackerel with rice, and we ate so much spaghetti that I can’t stand pasta today. We made popsicles from Kool-Aid. We even grew our own vegetables because Joseph had a nearby allotment, producing potatoes, string beans, black-eyed peas, cabbage, beets … and peanuts. From an early age, we were taught how to plant seeds and peanuts, lining up enough space so they had room to grow. If we moaned – and we often did – about getting our hands and knees dirty, Joseph just reminded us that his first job as a teenager was working the cotton fields ‘where I collected 300 pounds of the stuff each day.’ He said Mother was ‘the best damn cook in the city!’ and dinner was always
waiting for him as he walked through the door. She kept the house spotless, he said. Everything was always neat. This made her the perfect wife, he said.
He couldn’t fault Rebbie either because she took on motherly duties – preparing the food, cooking, cleaning, overseeing chores – whenever Mother worked. Rebbie was the big sister turned nanny and was equally stern, gentle, methodical and controlled. If I have one abiding memory of Rebbie, it’s of her standing in the kitchen, baking cookies and tea-cakes for us all. She was also the first child to show ‘promise’, according to Joseph, entering and winning local dance competitions. She and Jackie had some duet thing going on, and brought home prize certificates and trophies.
Mother worked weekdays, some Saturdays and some evenings as a cashier at Sears. She couldn’t really afford to shop there. When she did, she chose items to ‘put in Layaway’, reserving something with a down payment, then making a series of small instalments before taking the item home. Sears was our Harrods, and we grew up hearing the words ‘put it in Layaway’. We all hated seeing Mother handing over money and walking away empty-handed. That made no sense to us. Feeling hard done by, we kids regularly moaned about it, but not Mother. She just got on with life and trusted in God. If she ever had a moment to sit down, she spent it reading the Bible.
As a two-year-old, she had had polio, which led to partial paralysis; she had worn a wooden leg splint until she was 10. I don’t know too much about her suffering except that she had several operations, missed a lot of school and was left with a permanent limp because one leg is shorter than the other but I’ve never once heard her complain about it. Instead, she always said how grateful she was to have survived a disease that killed many others. She had dreamed of becoming an actress, but she showed no resentment over a dream that illness had crushed. Her condition led to some merciless taunting from other children when she was a teenager, which left her painfully self-conscious and shy. On one early date with Joseph as a 19 year old, they were on the dance-floor at some
party, moving cheek to cheek to a slow number, when Mother started trembling. ‘What’s the matter, Katie?’ asked Joseph.
‘Everyone is staring at us,’ she said, head down, unable to look up.
He looked around and they were the only couple on the floor. He noticed people pointing and talking behind their hands, presumably about one of Mother’s legs being shorter than the other, or that one of her heels was a wedge to correct her balance. She had grown up dreading parties and social gatherings, but Joseph ignored the stares and turned it into a positive. ‘We have the floor to ourselves, Katie,’ he said. ‘Let’s keep dancing.’
Mother had moved from Alabama to Indiana as a child when Papa Prince chased work in the steel industry. She had dreamed of one day meeting a musician so guitar-playing Joseph fitted the bill, and it took the length of one spring and one summer for their romance to turn into marriage. They had ‘met’ in the street. It’s probably more accurate to say that Mother was in the street and Joseph was inside, sitting near his front window, when she rode by on a bicycle. They noticed each other and, for another week or two, she kept to the same route. One day, he plucked up the nerve to rush outside and introduce himself. That led to a date at the movies and then the party with the dance-floor. Katie Scruse, the golden-skinned girl so shy she struggled to look anyone in the face, fell in love with Joseph Jackson, the lean, brash, charismatic working man. They were wed by a Justice of the Peace in November 1949 and bought our childhood home in Gary for $8,500, using his savings and a loan from Mother’s step-father.
As their plans for three children became four, then five and so on, they started saving what little money Mother could earn as she harboured a dream that Joseph would one day build an extension for an extra bedroom and more space. We grew up with a stack of bricks in the backyard – a constant reminder of our mother’s hope for a bigger and better home.
Our little house comes with so many layers in my memory. Its compactness – huddling around Mother and living on top of one
another – might not have made it the most comfortable home but it reflected our parents’ continual talk of togetherness and staying close. Within this togetherness, there comes loyalty. With loyalty comes strength. This was instilled in us. It was why we became a unit, moving together as one. Few in Gary could claim such family cohesion. It was a working man’s city built in 1906 by the muscle of African-American immigrants who helped turn a north-west Indiana landscape of sand dunes and scrub vegetation into a hub of the national steel industry.
Old men always spoke of a blood, sweat and toil work ethic back in the day. No man from Gary was ever afraid of putting in the hours and doing the grind. ‘If you work real hard, you will achieve,’ Joseph said. ‘You get back what you put in.’ In the eyes of his forefathers, getting a paid job and owning a house represented ‘achievement’, but he always wanted us to be more than he became. None of us grew up with a dream that ran into a father’s resistance: ‘You’ll stop this day-dreaming and get yourself a real job!’ No. Our father
us to have a dream, and hold on to it.
About 90 per cent of Gary’s population, and most of Indiana, found employment at ‘The Mill’ of Inland Steel, located a half-hour drive away in neighbouring East Chicago. Joseph was a crane operator, moving steel beams back and forth. He worked real hard in a tough job with rough eight-to-10 hour shifts. While inside his glass bubble atop the crane, his mind wandered back to his beginnings in Durmott, south of Little Rock, Arkansas. As a young man, he used his pocket money to watch back-to-back silent movies at the cinema, telling himself that, one day, he would be the first black actor to star in one. Ending up at The Mill was not part of that dream. It was slavish work, echoing generations of black men before him. ‘It’s about getting on top, not staying at the bottom,’ he said.
Before meeting Mother, and when he first arrived in Indiana, he had worked on the railroads. He then landed a job at a foundry, working a pneumatic jackhammer in the steel-melting heat of a blast furnace. ‘Hot? Men fainted,’ he said. ‘We worked in
10-minute bursts, then got out of there because those floors were heated white.’ He was skin and bone, apparently. No matter how much he ate, he couldn’t put on an extra pound because the work kicked his butt. It is a metabolism that most of us inherited – especially Michael. Joseph’s ‘worst kind of work’ continued when he had to collect dust from the furnace. This meant his skinny frame became useful when lowered by cord, in a bucket, into a deep flue, three feet in diameter. When I heard these stories, I thought a crane operator’s job was glamorous by comparison.
Let no one say that Joseph doesn’t know the meaning of hard work. I think it takes a certain type of man to do that kind of job – someone hardened and emotionally strong – and he worked his fingers to the bone to ‘earn a life’, as he put it. I think this is where his insistence on ‘respect’ comes from. Worked as a ‘subordinate’ for most of his young adult life, and with an ancestry rooted in the slave trade like Mother, he had
respect so he expected it from his family. He knew his responsibilities, too. The more children he had, the more hours he worked to bring home extra pay. When Michael arrived, he got a second job and started juggling shifts at a canned-food factory.
As children, we sensed that struggle to make ends meet. Our parents’ combined take-home pay was about 75 dollars a week. They were too proud to claim welfare, so in the winter, Tito and I shovelled snow from neighbours’ driveways to put some extra money on the table. We always knew when Joseph had collected his pay packet because a new loaf of bread was on the kitchen worktop, with a packet of luncheon meat. On more than one occasion, Joseph was laid off and then hired again. During those lulls, he got work picking potatoes. We instantly knew when the steel shifts had dried up because all we ate was potatoes – baked, mashed, boiled, roasted.
Inland Steel was the end of the rainbow for generations of families. It was said there were only three outcomes to life in Gary: The Mill, prison or death. The last two options were related to the gang-life that was the flip-side to our community. But whatever destiny
seemed laid out for us, Joseph was determined to change its course. Every hour he worked was with that in mind. Our escape was his escape, with Mother.
JOSEPH WAS ONE OF SIX CHILDREN:
four boys, two girls. As the eldest, he was closest to the sister who followed him in order of birth: Verna Mae. Our sister Rebbie reminded him of her, he said – dutiful, kind, the proper little housewife, and wise beyond her years. Joseph loved how Verna Mae took care of the house and children. He remembers her, aged seven, reading bed-time stories to their brothers Lawrence, Luther and Timothy, by oil lamp. Then she fell ill and Joseph could do nothing to help her. The doctors couldn’t even diagnose what was wrong with her. From her bed, Verna Mae was stoical. ‘Everything is well. I will be healthy again,’ she said. But Joseph watched his sister’s deterioration from the bedroom door as the adults surrounded her bed. She succumbed to the illness and passed away. Joseph sobbed for days, unable to comprehend such a loss. As far as my understanding goes, that was the last time he shed a tear: he was 11.
As self-confessed cry-babies, Michael and I always hated how hardened our father was. None of us can remember a time when we saw him show any emotional vulnerability. Whenever we cried as kids – even after he had chastised us – he berated us: ‘What you crying for?’
Joseph had spent his formative years mourning and missing his sister. At her funeral, after walking behind the horse-drawn cart that carried her coffin, he vowed he never wanted to lay eyes on anyone’s tomb again. One loss in life sealed our father’s emotions and Joseph kept his word: he never attended another funeral. Until 2009.
WHEN JOSEPH WAS A SCHOOLBOY, HE
was terrified of one woman teacher. The ‘respect thy teacher’ decree carried extra force because his father, Samuel, was a high-school director and believed in strict discipline by corporal punishment. This fearsome woman
apparently scared Joseph so much that he shivered whenever she called out his name. Once, so the story goes, he was called out to the front of the class to read from the chalkboard. He knew exactly what the words were, but fear left him mute. The teacher asked him again. When he couldn’t answer a second time, the punishment was swift: a wooden paddle board across his bare behind. This thing had holes in it, too, for extra suction with each whack. As she paddled him, she reminded him why he was getting hit: he had disobeyed her when he didn’t read. He hated her for it, but
her too. ‘Because of this, I listened to her and always did my best,’ he said.
It was the same when Papa Jackson chastised him. That was how he was raised – on the old theory that in order to control someone, you first need to shock fear into them. This was his lesson in life, marked out on his backside. In later weeks, that same woman teacher held a talent contest and pupils were invited to do anything they wished: art, poetry, craft, a short story, a dramatic presentation. Joseph wasn’t artistic; he wasn’t good with words – he’d only ever watched silent movies. He knew only one thing: the sound of his father’s voice, singing ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’. So he decided to sing, but when it came to his turn, he shook so much that his pitch was quivery and rushed – and the whole class burst out laughing. He returned to his desk ‘humiliated’ and expected another beating. When his teacher approached, he cowered. ‘You sang very well,’ she said. ‘They are laughing because you were nervous, not because you were bad. Good try.’
On the walk home from school, Joseph says he made a vow to himself that ‘I’ll show ’em’ and he started dreaming about ‘a life in show-business’. I didn’t know that story until recently. He excavated it from his past, trying to apply meaning after the event. I don’t suppose any of us Jacksons have taken the trouble to understand our deepest history, or even talk about it too much. Michael once said he didn’t truly know Joseph. ‘That’s sad for a son who hungers to understand his own father,’ he wrote in 1988, in his autobiography,
I think there is something unknowable about Joseph. It’s difficult to reach him beyond his barriers, perhaps built by a fear of loss and reinforced by his need for respect. None of us can remember him holding or cuddling us, or telling us, ‘I love you’. He never play-wrestled with us, or tucked us into bed at night; there were no heart-to-heart father-son discussions about life. We remember the respect, the instructions, the chores and the commands, but no affection. We knew our father as he was; someone who wanted to be looked up to, and to provide for his family – a man’s man.
Acceptance of this
to know him in its limited way, and as much as Michael struggled to accept the way Joseph was, he always had compassion for him, not judgement. The sad thing is that I don’t think he knew the back-story I have just shared. I guess many people only know their parents as ‘Mother’ and ‘Father’ and not as people prior to that role but if we understand more about our parents when they were young, then maybe we have a better chance of knowing who we become. I like to think that the stories about Joseph’s schooldays explain quite a lot.