Book Manuscript Excerpt: Part I Chapter Eleven (Abbreviated)
I Work Both Sides of The Tracks
When left to itself, the mind has no power of its own; it is powered by the world in which it exists.
There were times—though very few—when growing up that I did feel free to be me. This is when I was with my White friends. Yes, it was the South this is true. And separation of the races was still in force. I did not feel comfortable much of the time. This had nothing to do with issues of race. It was how I felt forced to think about things I rather not. But With my friends Cosby and Junior, I didn’t feel this way. Maybe it was because I knew they did not know the source of my pain. When I was with them, I did not even think about it. It did not cross my mind. It was great to be around them. When I was with either one, I felt like a person. I had no worries, I was happy.
I felt the same when I met their parents. Cosby’s folks owned Deadman Grocery store in Cullendale where Blacks and Whites shopped side by side, no White aisles and no Black. Yes, in the same store at the same time without a problem. If not for Cosby, I would not have had my paper route. He put in a good word at the Arkansas Democrat for me to take over from him he had grown out of it. He was older now and had several years on me. He has his driver’s license, and would soon have a car. Their Headquarters is in Little Rock, so it is possible they did not know that I was Black. I am all but sure I was the only Black paperboy in town. And I am for sure I would be the only one with both Black and White customers. My Black customers had to be nothing less than surprised and the Whites totally shocked. So it is more than likely that someone from the latter group called to find out what was going on. Apparently it did not matter if they did no one ever said a word to me.
My route followed a long and winding course. The delivery driver would drop off my papers just in front of the door to Deadman. It is an afternoon paper and I would try to have it on my customers’ porch by suppertime. I am on my way as fast as my legs could peddle just after the last school bell for the day. My first stop would place me in the White neighborhood. Black folks, young as well as old, knew not to walk through this area. But that was not enough to come between my customers and their paper. And they are always right. They wanted their paper, and I am the one who brings it to them. One thing I can say, they were comfortable with me—at least it seemed that way—and I with them.
Next, I cross the line that divides. It has the street name, Louisiana and the longest stretch runs along the railroad tracks. It seems to have been consciously drawn with race in mind. It is understood to be just what it is. It is the “color line.” Not so official yet observed as if it were. Well, I am not thinking about that, the only race on my mind is the race to get the papers delivered before suppertime. I am now on my way to my Black customers. They are from the better off to the barely making it, or so it seemed. It was a mix of socioeconomic factors playing out that were hard to miss. This is my most challenging area if only for the fact that not a week, or so, would pass without a flat tire. There was glass where there should have been grass.
This area was on the very fringe of the neighborhood. It was a subset of the Black area. At this point, I am still some distance from home. And I am pushing my bike, again. Half of my papers still left to deliver, and they were large. Much more so than the local paper. It’s back to the other side of the street. This time it would be a different White area. I say area because all the customers, on this part of my route, lived in this same neighborhood, just not the same area. Yes, that color line again. As I hit the last house, I am on my way to my community, Brown Hill, where there is no such line. There are still more papers to deliver before I can take the paper bag off for the day. These are “my Black folks,” I grew up around them. There is one thing I have always thought about, and still do not understand. The only customer that refused to pay is a Black person, a deacon at my church and a worker at the mill. I had a slim profit margin, and it took just one or two non-paying customers to put a dent in my pay. I had to buy all of my supplies, from the company, of course.
The paper is published out of Little Rock. It is now called the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and has more readers than any other paper in Arkansas. It covers state, regional and national news events, and of course sports and other issues of the day. So pretty much anyone who reads the paper is reading because of his or her interest in what it offers. They want to keep up with what is going on. This, no matter where they were on the ladder of success. Social rank and status seemed to make no difference. There is not a happy ending to this, though.
Three months after I started my paper route, my friend Cosby was killed in a fiery one car accident. He was alone. Now there were two, Junior Biggers, who I hung out with the most, and me. He is my sole riding partner now. His folks owned a number of businesses and had more than a few Black workers. Though Cosby and Junior were a different race from me, we had a lot of fun. And we had a thing or two in common. One thing that kept us running close is the three of us owned a Cushman motor scooter. Junior and I at the same time, his white and mine black. I had what no Black kids in town had, a brand new Cushman and White running buddies. I thought this was the thing, and it was.
I must take a break here for an anecdote; it is all part of the story and just as true. I shall return to where I left off.
Even before the sound died down from the last bell signaling the end of the school year and the beginning of summer vacation, the boys in my neighborhood would go on the watch for the arrival of the “summer birds.” These would be the nieces, cousins and granddaughters visiting from up North. They would be on a trip to see their relatives and we would be out to see them. Of course, only a few of us were able to meet the grade.
Part I Chapter Five
Not All Was What it Seemed to Be
Camden is where it happened for me. It is just down the road a piece—about 55 miles—from Hope. Hope is the home town of William Jefferson Clinton, known by most as Bill. Our Bill, you know, the one who was president. When I first visited Hope, Bill Clinton was just a kid around my age. He was and is a bit older. Who had ever heard of him. So, he is not what comes to mind when I think of Hope. Though, I am all but sure Bill Clinton made himself known to all who were within the sound of his voice, and beyond. No, what come to mind when I think of Hope are the large watermelons that they grow there. I do mean large, three times as large as you would see elsewhere. They have a deep green rind, juicy red meat and dark brown to black seeds. We all just loved to eat them and spit out the seeds. And they were a sight to see, as well. Folks are, to this day, still talking about them, and eating no less I am sure. They are legend. Hope is known for the largest watermelons in the world. This great accomplishment is celebrated each year with a festival that goes back to the 1920s. How did I get from a city street to a watermelon patch?
Well, at my school—the all mighty Lafayette Eagles—we had an agriculture class that all male students were required to take. We had not one but three years (?) of what at times could be a scary affair. Mr. Smith was our instructor. He was a short rotund man with no discernible features of note. There was nothing about him that stood out. He did have a limp that no one seem to notice or just did not let on that they did. Well, there is a thing or two that the women took notice of. He was single. He had never married. And was the most eligible bachelor in the area. He was sought after as if he dripped gold. That is until he surprised—I would go so far as to say shocked—everyone by getting married and fathering a son when he was in his late fifties or early sixties. There was something about him that the women were attracted to other than his money and standing in the community. Could it have something to do with the “mountain oysters” he ate? I wonder. One of his favorite things to do was to me very cruel and he would take some of us along. The owners wanted it done to their pigs. When asked he was more than willing to oblige all requests. Mr. Smith would castrate the young pigs by surgically removing both of their testes. And these he would keep for his consumption. We all thought it was gross, for his partners, maybe not. It was a painful thing for me to watch and it pains me even now to think about it. How painful this removal of the gonads must have been for the pigs in a physical sense and we do not know what it does to their mind. Yes, I do believe they have one, as I do for all animals.
The main reason for this barbaric procedure is to improve the taste and smell of the meat for the consumer. As repulsive as it is to think about, there is no doubt, there is an odor and flavor problem in cooked pork from intact males. Well, there will no more sex for these guys. The testes—that produce the compounds involved in eliciting sexual behavior in gilts and sows during the mating process—have been taken. Mr. Smith knew best, I guess you could say. It seems he had always been the Ag. Teacher and would beat your back with what, at times, could be perceived as a perverse satisfaction. He would beat your back as if you had another one to offer when the one you have wears out. We are not talking buttocks here, which is bad enough. No, this is back as in the rear upper part of your body. These “whuppings” could be for almost any kind of offense. But more often than not, it would be for not doing what you had been told to do. Top of the list would be not turning in an assignment or not having the answer when called on in class. This would bring it on, as would just the hint of wrongdoing. Of course, wrongdoing is to be defined by him. If you miss church, his church, of which I was a member, you would get a beating. If you looked at him the wrong way, you guessed it.
But the worst of all beatings would be if Mr. Smith overheard you call him chuck. I never really knew why, other than during his football days that is what he was called and he had a limp from his battles on the field. Maybe that is it. Whatever the reason, he would lose it and any sense of control would be lost. What he would do to you then would be called assault today. He would turn your back into “chopped” meat. His weapon of choice was a very thick piece of leather, formal name, the strap. As when he would say, “come here Oboy, I am gonna beat your back.” “You’re just trifling, go get my strap.” Beginning in the first grade, or there about, you start to develop a fear of the dreadful day when you had to take shop. Not because of shop, but because of who would be teaching it.
Mr. Smith had a reputation and he lived up to it. It was well deserved. There were many prayers offered up, I am sure, for his demise. The parents loved him. He did slow down as he grew older, but he did not retire. Well, that is, until the schools were desegregated. He most assuredly was not going to lay a hand on the White students. I guess you could say we were better off for the experience. If nothing else and there was more, this is how I learned of the world’s largest watermelons. What a price we pay to learn. I must admit, I never received a beating from Mr. Smith, though I came close. I was actually one of his favorites, that is, until I let my impulsive nature get the best of me on a trip from the Ouachita County Fair. There are a couple of things worth noting; Mr. Smith was a good teacher. And usually, only those who deserved his wrath were on the receiving end of the strap. Some were set on the right path by his actions. And it was a learning experience for all.
When you take the agriculture class, you are signed up as a member of the New Farmers of America (NFA). We would visit the County Fair in Hope each year, mostly as a treat. Who knows, I may have brush shoulders with our future president. Not very likely, we were the NFA. The new was reserved for the Negro student. You cannot overlook the irony of saying that the descendants of slaves are new to farming. It is all we were allowed to do. And it was bred in us. The “future” was not yet ours to hold, however.
The future was reserved for the White student. They were the Future Farmers of America with all that came with it. Back then to wish you were White did not mean you wanted to be. You just wanted some, a little bit, of what Whites had. To have the freedom to be you, which we surely did not. Of course that was not to be. All we could do was look and dream. Our trails did not cross. The law of the South was separate but equal. This is a doctrine to justify what in reality will not be. Just as no two living things can be equal even with the best of intentions. And here, the real intent was to undermine federal mandates under the 14thamendment of the United States Constitution that guaranteed equal protection under the law to all citizens. It is a goal that will not be reached. It is just a myth, a false motivator in disguise. This will always be true when you need and have to ask for permission. No matter who or where you are.
I did not think of it much, if at all, then, but Camden was, and is, known more for other things than being within striking distance of Hope. They are worthy of note. First off, we have Susan McDougal. She could say no wrong against President Bill Clinton. Her home is in Camden. When asked by the Grand Jury if Bill Clinton lied in his testimony during the Whitewater trial, she refused to answer. This led to a jail sentence of 18 months for contempt of court.
There are others to be noted and are worthy of mention. Ne-Yo, who is an American pop, and R&B singer-songwriter and musician, is from Camden. So are brothers Stacy and Shaun Andrews, players in the National Football League. There are a couple of others, as well. Shaun revealed in a 2009 New York Times interview that he was suffering from depression. When commenting to a question he stated, “There’s some good and bad in there, if you know the song ‘Tears of a Clown,’ that would kind of describe my past a little bit up to now.” It brought back memories of when I would sing the same song, and another Smoky Robinson tune “Tracks of my Tears.”
Sam Walton, founder of Walmart, opened one of his first five and ten cent stores on Adams Avenue in my hometown. The Grapette Company the maker of the “best grape soda ever made” was founded in Camden. It is the same formula that Walmart use in its “Sam’s Choice Grapette,” today. This is the short list. Camden is known for much more. For a small southern city, it has much to be proud of, or not. There are two chapters in its history that I would not celebrate or wave a flag for, no way. The one with the greatest impact, in my mind, is when the founding fathers made the decision to transport thousands of enslaved Blacks to the area to work on the cotton plantations. My grandfather’s kin were hauled in from Virginia much as you would move your prized cattle. Yes, they were victims of this mass crime against humanity. What is more despicable than the institution of slavery? It is dehumanization of the worst kind. This legacy was handed down to my mother from her father to me. The other sordid chapter is when the Confederates won the battle of Poison Springs on April 18, 1864. These are turning points and a stain on Camden’s history, as I see it. And so should history, a sense of honor it is not. What decent person would think so. Well, one the boll weevil took care of and the Union army did the rest. Camden is where I grew up and I did not know any of this then. It would not have made a difference. I was in my world.
I came of age there, if it could be called that, in the Brown Hill community. The brown in Brown Hill is not because of the color of its residents, but the name of its founder. Though it was and to this day still is a Black community. We had not grown proudly into Black in those days. When we talked about us, it was Negro. When we were talked to or about, it was niggra or colored. That is when the speaker was being polite, and there were more than a few times they were not, so it was just plain nigger.
Will You or Not
You should try to say what you will do, not what you will not do. This includes saying what you will not do now. You should only say—if you feel you must—what you do not want to do. What you will try your best not to do. Will not is a negative way to think. It comes from a thought of which you cannot be sure. With this way of thinking, you must put forth an effort to hold back. It requires a measure of Self control, which could give way. If it does, one time it is too many. The only thing for sure you will not do, is a thing that you cannot do. No one knows the future. Minds change people change.
Will is a great word it is the next word in a positive thought. The third word gives it meaning. I will do, I will not do are examples of what I mean. Will do is a will to act. It is a kind of freedom that can take you places. I will not, stops you in your tracks. If you do what you say you will do, you have kept a promise. If you do not, you have broken a promise. To do so shows a lack of commitment and a fail to follow-through. There are very few reasons, if any at all, to break a promise. And the most important promise is to your own self. You must always be true to who you are.
If I do not tell myself the truth, I cannot tell it to you. Not a thing can exist for long without it. It is what we depend on to know what we do is right. You cheat yourself when you do not keep your promise and tell the truth. Each time that you do, you take one more step away from who you are. Never do a thing to take away from your Self. The Self is our core, the essence of each one of us. It is where we go to what; be ourselves. A place we would never leave on our own, but our mind will. Our power and strength comes from there. If the ways of life have kept your mind away, you are the one to get it back. No one can do this for you. It is not an easy thing to do. Our mind should be where we are. And when it has left where it naturally belongs it will be hard to find its way back. This happens to us when there has been major trauma in our lives. To do better is a choice.
To be and remain weak is a choice, as well. It is what we have when we have not learned to be strong. Strength is what keeps us in one piece and from coming apart. Without it you will not stand firm, you will not speak out and you will not be heard. It is the way of nature. And if you do not feel you can do these things, you are not being who you truly are. For sure, you were created to be you. I was created to be me.
Weakness does not have the strength to be strong. It is a sign that not all is well. When that which is weak, joins that which is strong, the weak is not made stronger. The strong is made weaker. Be it cream to coffee, ice to tea or anything that keeps me from just being me. What was once strong has now been diluted. Strength or weakness of the mind is how we think our thoughts. It is not how good or bad we are. It is a state of mind. To feel or act offended is to be weak. To feel an offense and not act offended is a show of strength. The greatest strength is that which comes from within. Inner strength gives us what we need to do what needs to be done.
I now know where my weakness came from. I did not have the chance to become strong. I had to do what I could on my own. We, as all living things, are to follow a growth process to be who we are created to be. When that does not happen, we are unable to stand on our own. We must have the nurturing and care that we need to flourish and be strong. It is a thing that is difficult for us to overcome when we do not have it. Growth in all areas is stunted. Though, overcome it we can, when we know what made us weak. It was a struggle for me to keep up.
The problem is I did not know how to be strong, because I did not know how to live. I would put my best foot forward and do a good thing. Just to turn around and take one step back to where I came. It was a thing in me that said you could do this. Then the reality created not by me but for me would not allow me to be me. My mind would not leave me along. I was afraid to step up to the line and compete. But I was a standout on my own. I was too weak to win and not strong enough to lose. I had the will but did not know the way. We cannot learn this on our own, we must be taught how to walk. And use our mind to practice how to think. Nothing is as hard as it seems you just do not know how to do yet.