It was Tom Wolfe who called me at my home in Bergen County, New Jersey, and said, “Go get the story, Luce!” In his journalistic mind, I was the perfect person to cover the race riots in New Haven since it was my hometown and I had jammed and gigged on piano in the black jazz clubs around Yale University, so I had an ‘in’ with the black community.
As a mother of a pre-schooler and a baby, my days and nights were pretty hectic. I was so exhausted when the children were finally asleep that two minutes in front of television and I was asleep. I didn’t know what was going on in the world and I didn’t care. I was too tired. My music was a thing of the past; my whole world was upside down. I barely knew who was president, nor did I care about current events.
However, the more I thought of the words, “Get the story, Luce!” the more intrigued I became. It was a compelling notion. And, too, I longed for a little diversion from my tedious life of diapers and yowling. In my fatigued mind I reasoned that riots cannot be worse than taking care of kids. I found myself planning an excursion from my heavy duty childcare to journalistic snooping under the pretext of visiting my mother in New Haven whom I hadn’t seen in a very long time.
Motherhood had so isolated and exhausted me that I’m sure I wasn’t thinking clearly. The New Haven I left in 1959 was a springboard of jazz excitement, and I longed to see it again. It never occurred to me that the New Haven I knew no longer existed, and that it could change so drastically in eight short years. It also never occurred to me that this impulsive jaunt could be a dangerous mission. I thoughtlessly made arrangements for the children, packed my bag, and I was on my way.
The first thing I did when I arrived at my mother’s house in New Haven was to start looking up names of some of the black musicians I knew on the jazz scene before I left town. Many had nicknames, so I couldn’t really look them up. Then I remembered meeting the mother of a musician that I had worked with, so I called her up. She was as friendly as she had been in the past and agreed to speak with me “for old time’s sake.”
Ms. Jackson was the matriarch of a large black family. She lived in an all-white neighborhood of two- and three-family homes, fairly close together and in a nicely kept up neighborhood. Most of the people, I learned later, owned and lived in their own homes and rented their other flats to relatives. Ms. Jackson did the same.
Her aging, but still towering figure led me into the living room at a very slow pace, explaining, “Ah had uh fall on mah way to mah job.” She sighed and added, “When yo gits ole, you don’t heal so fast as when yo young.”
When we met in the past, she knew me as a piano player, so the first thing she did was to show me her prize possession, a walnut console piano. She announced with great pride, “Mah gran’daughter takes to music. They takes after me. When ah was uh girl, ah could play anything by ear, most any hymn, an’ any otha songs, like For He’s A Jolly Good Fella’. Ah loved music. Mah boyfrien’ used to come by an’ sing to me. Girl Of Mah Dreams an’ ‘Blue Heaven.’ Songs like dat. Mah music done gone right into mah gran’chillun.”
As she spoke, I looked around the room. I noticed a large dictionary and several Time-Life history series. She watched me check out the books and said, “Ah loves History. That’s mah hobby. Ah notices that when mah gran’daughter reads her history to me, they’s more and more of black history being tole. Was nevah like that when ah was uh girl. They nevah wants to give the black man the credit he deserve, an’ the black man helped build America. They should be more black history so’s all people can know the truth.”
Ms. Jackson offered me a cup of coffee, so we walked into the kitchen. I sat at the table so that we could continue talking while she put the coffee on. We had such a good rapport that she did not mind my pointed questions, beginning with, “Tell me, Ms. Jackson, what you REALLY think of white people?”
She thought about it for a minute, then answered slowly and deliberately, “When you workin’ FOR ‘em, you don’t learn nuthin’ but when you workin’ WITH ‘em, you learns about ‘em. They’s like ever’body else. Some’s good, some’s bad. When ah taught sewin’ in the public schools, some mothers wouldn’t register they chillun. Don’t know why. Ain’t none of mah blackness gonna rub off on ‘em. Ah was always good at sewin’. Ah could pass uh store, study a dress in a window with mah eyes, and go home and make it. Ah used to sew for a livin’. Opened a li’l store. One customer, she weight 205 lbs. She couldn’t find nuthin’ fit her, so maybe she finds one. So she bring it to me an’ ah makes more of ‘em.” She looked down and
chuckled softly, reminiscing, “She was somethin’. So fat, she fall asleep standin’.”
Then she turned to me and continued her story. “We gave a li’l fashion show at the school. They showed all the pretty li’l things they made in mah class. Then they found out mah birthday and give me uh party in school with uh cake sayin’ Happy Birthday on it.”
Her voice became very tender as she recalled, “These li’l chillun showed me they li’l hearts was like mah li’l chillun’s hearts. They mothers din’t teach them no prejudice.”
“Hasn’t anything changed, gotten better at all for the black people?” I asked.
“If the whites progressed as much as the blacks in the past hundred years, they’d be no trouble in this country. But whites is narrow-minded. An’ those people makin’ laws for the black folk, humph, they sendin’ they chillun to private schools.”
“Why didn’t black people rebel back then? Why did they wait till now?” I asked.
She cocked her head to one side, fell deeply into thought, and began speaking even more slowly, as if reliving every word she spoke. “You know the blades of grass that tries to grow up through the cracks in the sidewalk? They grow, an’ someone steps on ‘em an’ they is mashed. They don’t get no chance to grow strong like the grass that grows free in the fields. Black folks is like the blades. Ever’time we grows up uh li’l, someone steps on us. When ah was a young girl down south, many of us wanted to learn to read an’ write, but if we’s caught with a pencil in our hand, they cut off our fingers. For three hundred years, we worked for nuthin’. No land, nuthin’. We was helpin’ build America an’ we had nuthin’ but uh hole to sleep in. The whites stakes a claim. The black man had no land to stake. Sometimes the blacks an’ whites worked together in the fields. The white man get paid; the black man work for nuthin’.”
As I listened, I felt as though I was watching history, no, experiencing history as it unfolded before my eyes. Every word was alive through her facial and vocal expressions.
“One woman, mah frien’ down south,“ she continued, “was ridin’ a bus. We alls kept to the back and we alls say ‘yessum’ to the white folk. We’s taught that very young. Well . . .” she sighed, “she went the end of the line, so the driver, he say, ‘Ain’t no one ‘round. You can use the front door.’ Mah friend, she say, ‘yessum’ an’ she walk to the front of the bus. Just when she begin to step down, he done put his foot on her back an’ kicked her out the door. Then he stand there at the door an’ look down at her cryin’ on the ground, an’ he jus’ laugh an’ laugh an’ laugh. I ain’t never forgot.”
The mood became very solemn as her mind reviewed the painful details of this southern remembrance. The silence was suddenly broken by her cynical laugh, “Hah! The white man, he sure hate the blacks in the day, but at night, they was always goin’ in bunches an’ jumpin’ the black girls.’
“Did they ever jump you?”
“Ah always carried uh bone handle razor with me, jus’ waitin’. They musta knowed ah was waitin’, cuz they never messed with me. They knowed that any white man jumps me gonna pull back with a nub.”
“How did you get from that situation down south to buying your own home in a northern, all-white community?” I asked in complete amazement.
“Ah schemed to get what ah has. Got me a job in Washington for $25 a week. Ah was supposed to get Thursdays and Sundays off, but the lady’s frien’ ask her why she give that nigger so much time off, so ah has to work them days, too. Then the lady goes away on vacation, so ah makes up mah mind ah’s gonna profit from havin’ to work on mah days off, so ah sends for mah gran’daughter. When the lady come back, she din’t like what ah done, noways, but ah was such a good worker, so she let mah gran’daughter stay. She had a li’l son acted like the devil hisself. Mah li’l gran’daughter was the same age an’ acted like a li’l lady. They played together nice, an’ the lady see how nice they play an’ then she don’t mind mah gran’daughter stayin’.
“Then ah puts uh Ad in the paper for uh janitor job so ah could live in and send for more of mah family. Mah son down south wanted to go to college, but they try to get him to work in the brickyard. They din’t want no blacks to git educated, so ah had ta work hard to get mah chillun otta they. Ah was the steppin’ stone. One by one they came to stay with me on mah job an’ they had no expenses, so mah son could go to school. Then mah daughters married an’ they work to send they chillun to school. One of mah gran’sons goes around to the different colleges an’ give speeches. They calls him ‘Mister,“ she declared proudly, “So li’l by li’l ah brings em up north.”
“They’s all set now, ‘cept for marriage. Mah family was nevah lucky in marriage. It’s uh family trait. Marriages is ‘posed to be made in heaven,” she nodded. “The Bible say, ‘Let no man set apart what God done put together,’ but God din’t put all marriages together. Ah had uh frien’ once, her husband was messin’ ‘round. She cried an’ she cried, then began drinkin’. Me? When mah first husband messed ‘round, I din’t drink, ah went to church. So mah frien’ got very sick and was in uh hospital. Her husband, mean as kin be, went right to her bed an’ make fun of her. He say, meanlike, ‘You ain’t ‘fraid to die, are ya?’ an’ she was so brokenhearted, she die. When this happen, I got me a 45 and done run mah husband out. Ain’t no man gonna put me in mah grave. Now, mah frien’s marriage and mah first marriage, they wasn’t made in heaven. Lotsa marriages wasn’t made in heaven. Mah second husband, we been married 30 years, now. God done put us together and ain’t NOBODY gonna put us asundah.”
I felt a deep admiration for this determined woman. I asked her what was in her make-up that caused her to have such a positive vision for her family, while others chose guns.
She explained, “Blacks worked long, long time on the plantation. Then pretty soon, the machine come along an’ take his job. Blacks went up north to the big cities. They was uneducated so goes on welfare. Not ever’one got what it takes to do it, so they on welfare. They has no hope. Idleness is the devil’s workshop. When ah first come here, ah answered an Ad for sewin’. When ah goes there and they sees ah was black, they tries to git me for cleanin’. Wasn’t cleanin’ ah wanted, cuz ah kin sew. Thass mah talent. When ah was a li’l girl, ah wanted to go to Paris ta study fashion designin’, an’ ah’m gonna git to Paris one of these days ‘fore ah dies. But see, some of the blacks, they has no talent, an’ they has no strength inside, an’ they is beaten, mashed down,’ so they riot. Ain’t gonna do ‘em no good. Tearin’ down’s not gonna do nuthin.”
The phone rang and she slowly rose to answer it. On her way back,moaning softly with pain as she walked, she muttered, “Was mah own fault. Ah shoulda look where ah was goin’.”
Her job, she told me, was Foster Grandmother, over at the hospital. “Ah has uh way with chillun. Ah raised twenty-five of ‘em, including mah own chillun an’ they chillun. So ah see this Ad in the paper only four hours a day, which is good, see, cuz mah gran’chillun needs me in the mornin’ and when they comes home from school, so ah goes over they, and they hires me.”
I inquired about her duties there and she said, “You see, not alls chillun is wanted. Babies come in, they’s sick. They ain’t got no disease or nuthin’, but they’s sick cuz no on wants ‘em. So ah takes em in mah arms, an’ ah cuddles em, an’ ah talks to ‘em, an’ ah tries to git some food into they li’l tummy, and li’l by li’l, these li’l uns starts gittin’ some life back in ‘em. Ah gits two dollars uh hour to make these babies well.”
Before I could even ask, she answered, “All kinda babies come in, Black, White, even Japanese. We helps ‘em all. Uh while back, a white baby come in. She was two but din’t weigh but ten pounds. She was dyin’, jus’ dyin’. Don’t no good mother waits ‘til uh chile go down to ten pounds an’ dyin’ before she bring her to the hospital. She jus’ din’t want that chile, that’s what. This li’l child was so weak, she couldn’t hardly lift her li’l head. She couldn’t even cry. Nuthin’ but a squeak come out. So ah talks to her soft-like, and ah talks to her, and ah tells her what uh pretty li’l girl she is, an’ how she gonna get nice and strong. Then ah sings her a song. Ah do this ever’day. Then ‘bout week later, her eyes begins to look better, like she see me now. Li’l by li’l her strength come back and she kin cry. Not the li’l squeak but uh reg’lar cry. An’ then she eat better an’ gain weight.”
“Did they give her back to the mother?”
“No!” she answered, angrily. “Humph, she din’t want her noways. They done put her in a good home.”
After this, the subject changed to her neighborhood. I was curious to know what kind of reception she received when she bought the house.
“There was some prejudice at first. They smeared dog shit all over the windows, threw garbage an’ stuff in the yard, an’ started callin mah gran’chillun names. Then this li’l boy, no more’n two, mind you, comes here and says, ‘Fuckin’ niggers.’ He din’t hardly know what he was sayin’. Somebody tole him to say that. Humph! That ain’t nuthin’ to teach a chile.”
“Ah tole mah young uns, ‘Ah don’t wanna see none of you cussin’ out the whites. If they wanna be mean an’ iggorant, no reason you has to act that way.’ Then after a while, people begins to see how nice mah gran’chillun acts, like li’l gentle people, so the neighbors get a li’l shamed of theyself.”
“How long did it take for things to change?”
“Oh, guess it took ‘bout a year, then they start doin’ nice things, like sendin’ us Christmas cards, an’ the man on one side gave me a book of po’try. He knows ah like po’try. An’ the woman on the otha side, her boy done give us plenty of trouble, and she begin apologizing for the way he act. She say she took him to the doctor and the priest, but don’t do no good, so ah sends her uh note an’ ah says, ‘Don’t worry none ‘bout that boy. Any boy who shovels a sick lady’s sidewalk has a lotta goodness in him.’”
It was getting late and I had to get back to my mother’s before she starts worrying about me, so I got up from my chair at the kitchen table, and just as I took one step away, there was a loud, piercing noise and the sound of glass breaking. It happened so fast that I didn’t know what it was, but old Ms. Jackson knew. She knew even before we found the bullet hole in the wall behind my chair. I remembered that there was a wandering gang of teenagers in the street who saw me, a white woman, go into a black household and I suddenly understood.
While awaiting the police, Ms. Jackson and I did not talk. She wore an expression of angry determination the whole time. I, on the other hand, felt totally inundated by thoughts and emotions that clashed in my mind. There was fear that there had actually been a gun pointed at me, and there was relief that the sniper had missed. There was guilt that my presence brought problems into Ms. Jackson’s life. There was compassion for the gang of teenagers out there who carried out the prejudices planted in their impressionable minds. Finally, the realization struck me that had the bullet found its mark, my children would be without a mother.
The police escorted me to my car, which miraculously escaped unscathed. Before I left, though, I insisted on paying for the broken window that my visit caused. That was the least I could do for Mrs. Jackson.