ONCE A YEAR, they returned to Fort Smith, black folk, streaming into churches that held their “Homecoming” celebrations. Churches welcomed back the lost sheep, those who had wandered off during the great migration. There was singing and shouting, praising the Lord over platters of fried chicken and mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese and peach cobbler. There were tall glasses of sweet tea with a sprig of mint at the top. Favorite recipes were brought out and shown off, but the ingredients were kept secret, as if they were extensions of the cook, something that expressed who she was, the secrets of her personality that made her unique.
We were not a shouting, speaking-in-tongues church, more serene and quiet, but our excitement showed in the fervor of preparation, the dusting and polishing, the shining and cleaning and cooking. The wanderers had left us, but we held onto them and did everything we could to lure them back. We missed them. Aunt Alberta with her open-toed sandals and manicured nails. The way she pushed her heavy breasts forward as if they were leading the way for her. Aunt Ruth, who found religion in a bottle of Jim Beam and cried to “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.” We talked to them on the phone long distance whenever we could afford it, our grandmother always yelling because they were in California and might not hear her from such a distance. We knew they didn’t really wander off. They left intentionally, believing in the dreams of freedom just across the Mason-Dixon line. They had packed up the few things that were precious to them and taken the first car, or wagon or boxcar they could grab and left.
We didn’t know it then, but we were a part of “the Old South,” the old country. They were emigrants, leaving behind everything they knew and loved to find a better world, and we were their visible signs of a vanished past. We were “country” now and backward in our language and behavior, but they were now from the city and knew city ways. Aunt Ruth wanted to be called “Auunt Ruth” not the “Ain’t Ruth” that we had called her all our lives. They laughed at our thin telephone book, bragging about the thick ones in L.A. We got only one channel on TV, and usually, it only showed the test pattern, an Indian chief in full headdress. They got so many channels they couldn’t count them all. Uncle Fred reminded us to say, “you guys,” not “y’all” (because that’s what they said in New York), and my aunts criticized us for the way we said “Hi” to everyone we met, stranger or friend. “You don’t speak to just anybody!” they told us. We had truly lost the people we loved in ways we couldn’t get back.
The miles between us were not just highway now, but culture and style and language. They had traveled a road that left no roadmap for us. We longed for the old comfortable relationships of the past but could not grasp them.
The “city” relatives seemed shocked at the changes in us that time had wrought in their absence. So little Dorothy now has a grown-up figure? Little Buddy is taller than his mother? The changes we saw could not be spoken of. They looked tired. There were new wrinkles, slower movements, more addictions. Our relatives and friends left Arkansas full of dreams and headed to Los Angeles, Detroit and other cities, as if they were boarding sailing ships to cross uncharted seas. The new world in the North, Midwest and California beaconed them with a call that promised equal pay for equal work, The New Deal, comfort and security.
They returned looking sharp, dressed in suits with padded shoulders. The aunts wore Bettie Page pumps, wrist-length gloves and pillbox hats, to travel in style on an airplane. None of us had ever been on an airplane. Aunt Alberta now sported a cigarette holder and carried her Lucky Strikes in a decorated case. They no longer chugged Old Crow and coke like their Arkansas relatives. Now they drank highballs. They had saved all year and placed clothes on “lay-away” in department stores to look prosperous and polished when they returned. They had lost their Arkansas accents, too.
1916 was when it all began, and by 1970, 6 million black folk had left the South. My parents’ siblings left, some of them never to return, but Aunt Ruth, Aunt Alberta and my uncles Fred and Jimmy came home from Los Angeles and New York every summer for “homecoming” and spent two weeks with us, during which they bragged about everything their lives held and made fun of the ways we talked and looked and lived.
We were confused and angry and sad. Our relatives had rejected us, but we were proud of them for getting out.
ON SATURDAY MORNINGS in the ’50s, we went downtown. Everybody did, whether they had money or not. This was where we gathered to catch up on each other’s lives and to give and get reports on the lives of those who had left. The Midland Heights bus passed right by our house, and we knew the schedule. With the 10-cent fare in hand, we ran out the front door just in time to cross the street and jump on board. We knew the routine, dropped our dimes into the slot and proceeded to the back. Maybe the white people needed the sign posted above the driver: “Whites start loading from front. Colored start loading from rear,” but we didn’t. Occasionally a bus driver entertained his white passengers by allowing us to drop in our dimes but then requiring us to get off the bus and enter at the back door. A really mean one would receive the dime, direct us to the back, then drive away before we could board. No one had to remind us of our assigned place, and there were no questions about what would happen if we didn’t follow the rules.
At the very back, on the long metal seat that spanned the space from one side to the other, black mothers sat with their babies. There they could spread out if they needed to. Every mother I knew was fat. I always wondered why that was so, but I assumed it was because mothering required large bosoms to cradle a crying baby and to comfort a scared child in the dark. It was not unusual to see a mother at the back uncover her breast and put her baby to the nipple. Mothers with older children sat in the two-passenger seats, children squirming while mothers spit on the corner of a handkerchief and wiped dirt off an unwashed cheek. I received many such face-washings on the bus, but I didn’t mind the spit. I minded the smell of breath on the handkerchief, not that it was awful, but it was breath, and I didn’t want it on my face.
We “colored” people knew our place, but that didn’t mean we liked our place. In public, we played our assigned roles, smiled at the white people, called them Mister and Misses. Our mothers and grandmothers and aunts cleaned their houses, cooked their food and took care of their children. But in our homes, we laughed at them. It was lighthearted humor with a dark side. There were jokes that circulated in the black neighborhood but never left its borders. Those mothers forced to the back of the bus had to regain their dignity, yet holding onto their full humanness required a delicate balance. It could only be regained in the right context, in the safety of a black neighborhood, a black home, black friends and family. A setting that required no explanation of the trauma of swallowing the ideas that you were “less than.”
A black woman got on the bus and sat behind a white woman. The white woman in front of her smelled wonderful. The black woman asked, “What is that wonderful fragrance?” The white woman turned around and replied, “Black Night, black bitch, $20 an ounce!” She haughtily turned back around. But the black woman had gas. Now the white woman had a question: “What is that awful smell?” The reply: “White beans, white bitch, 10 cents a pound.”
At the Piggly Wiggly supermarket on Saturday mornings, mothers met and caught up on the work week, complaining about the demands of white women who found their dignity in ordering around their maids. Women traded exaggerated stories between efforts to manage unruly children.
“So she told me all the things she wanted me to do for 50 cents an hour, and I told her, ‘Lady, you don’t want a maid. You want a janitor!’”
Our dad was the bell captain at the Goldman Hotel, where he shared with the other bellhops their own brand of dark humor. They had become best friends and had formed a club of sorts. There was great respect for the bell captain, they wore their uniforms proudly and were efficient and polite. On Mondays, their day off, they gathered at our house to drink and smoke and harmonize to nostalgic songs that carried them back to times of oneness and connection.
Here they sang themselves back to self-respect after being called “boy” and bowing and scraping for tips from arrogant white men in suits. Mom and the aunts set out ice buckets, glasses, ash trays, and cokes to be mixed with their Evan Williams or Old Crow. As children, our job was to stay out of the way, so we listened from a safe distance but never interrupted the men. Between rounds of “There’s an Old Spinning Wheel in the Parlor” and “Home on the Range,” they shared their jokes:
A black janitor was sweeping the lobby of the hotel as he sang, “Just Molly and me, and baby makes three. We’re happy in my blue heaven.” A white man interrupted the song. “Hey nigger. Don’t you know Molly’s a white woman?” The janitor stopped singing and sweeping for a minute, then returned to his work and his song: “Just Molly and y’all. I ain’t in it a-tall.”
DOWNTOWN, WE VISITED Hunts Bargain Basement, the cheap shops like “Mode-O-Day” and window-shopped. We stood on the bus stops and talked with folks we seldom saw, and hung out at the record shop. The white man who ran the shop knew we weren’t going to buy anything, but he let us crowd into the little listening booths and dance our hearts out for free. Moffett, Oklahoma, was just across the bridge, and those black folk came downtown, too. There were no bathrooms or restaurants or lunch counters available to us, where we could sit and chat and rest our feet, but this was where we got caught up on the lives of those who had moved away, and we tolerated the discomfort, waiting to eat and use the bathroom at home. People asked about our relatives, and we asked about theirs.
“How’s Ruth?” they would ask my mom, “or Alberta?” My mother’s answer was always, “Oh, she’s in Los Angeles, doing well.” Anyone who had left Fort Smith was “doing well.” For black people in Fort Smith, just getting out meant a lot. Cars parked along the curbs displayed license plates that boasted that Arkansas was “The Land of Opportunity.” We always added “the opportunity to go somewhere else.”
We knew our relatives had missed us, too, although they returned with a superior attitude, now that they were city slickers. They brought us what gifts they could afford and stayed long enough to relax the tension in their shoulders and backs and to laugh and cry more deeply. They were conflicted, and it showed in the absences of detail. Aunt Ruth was back to maid work again. The weather was warmer, the people were not as likely to say “nigger” in her presence, but there was no mention of generosity or kindness. She found her dignity in feeling superior to the undocumented workers from Mexico. The racism had taken on a different costume, but it was the same racist underneath. There was Aunt Alberta’s story of getting arrested for public intoxication. She had been at home drinking with friends when the police had called her out to come to the station. Her son had been picked up for being out after curfew. She was arrested.
Their dreams had been short-lived, and the reality of their lives was harsh and ugly, but they were forced now to put a good spin on it and to try to find some worth in all their struggles for a better life. Their victories were small ones—thicker phone books and lots of TV channels. They had polished their accents and their wardrobes and come back with heads held high, but stayed long enough to reveal the underbelly of the beast that had continued to stalk them.
There was much that was more blatantly brutal and ugly in Arkansas’ relationship with my people, but it was intermingled with all that was nostalgic and beautiful about the South, and they couldn’t leave one without leaving the other as well. They had left behind the peach orchards, the crepe myrtles, the dogwoods and the laughter shared while cleaning a mess of catfish for a big family supper.
They missed Southern folk, who would meet you on the street and ask, “Who your people?” After you had rattled off names of parents and grandparents, you’d reach the moment when the stranger would say “Oh, you related to Miss Gertie? She’s my second cousin on my daddy’s side!” My relatives left for jobs in the auto industry and the aircraft factories but could not take with them the connection and comfort of Southern living.
IN 1952, THE year that I turned 11, I was happy that they were there, spending two weeks in our house. It was just enough time for them to completely blend back in, and just enough for me to be ready for them to return home. I sat on a Friday morning beside the big unvented heater in our living room and daydreamed. It was warm enough now that we didn’t need the stove, and sitting beside it had just become a habit. I was supposed to be getting dressed, putting on my socks and shoes before breakfast, but my mind wandered, one sock on and the other one dangling from my hand. The air was rich with the fragrances of peonies blooming beside the front door.
Aunt Alberta was already in the kitchen having coffee, and Elvin Jr., her son, was not up yet. Aunt Alberta had found her escape by discovering Hollywood. With her fancy sandals, a pedicure and a wig, she was now the black Marilyn Monroe. She adopted a soft and whiny voice and became entirely helpless. “Sugar-puddin,” she’d call to my mom, “Would you bring me a highball, honey?”
Elvin was two weeks younger than me, but he knew a lot more about the world. His nickname was Bugsy because of his two big front teeth that reminded us of Bugs Bunny. He had pockmarks on his face left over from chickenpox, but he was still a cute kid, and I liked hearing about his life in the city. Bugsy looked down on me, too, but I didn’t care. He said that I had a lot of “book learning,” but I wasn’t “street-smart.”
The house was already busy, dishes rattling in the kitchen and chatter over coffee. I didn’t drink coffee. I was too little, but I loved the smell of it, and I loved the sound as Grandmother stirred in cream and sugar and sipped it from her saucer. I wanted to drink it, too, but the old people told us that coffee makes you black. We were in enough trouble for being black, so I avoided coffee.
Both the front and back doors were open, and the sounds of the house blended with the sounds outside–cars passing, neighbors talking, birds, dogs. The cold that had blanketed and muted the world was long gone, and everything was celebrating, making as much noise as it could. Our house was noisy enough all by itself with too many loud, boisterous people. The stairs creaked at every step as my brothers bounded down them from the upstairs bedrooms, and the hardwood floors complained as they ran through the living room, ready to eat before they were ready. They were sent back to wash faces, brush teeth, comb hair and come to the table appropriately.
With all the commotion going on around me, I was lost in another world, thinking about the relatives who escaped all this. Knowing that they were wrong to feel so superior, I also knew something else, something bigger. We were afraid to leave. The world out there was not ours. It belonged to white people, people who did not want us in it. Our world was insulated by Jim Crow rules that kept us small, and we were safe as long as we stayed small. We listened to the news on the radio and knew it was not about us. It was about the big world, and we lived in the little one.
I wondered where they found the bravery to leave us, to step into that dangerous world where a silent war was being fought with every breath, and every step into the white world was an act of courage. I tried to wrap my own mind around the awareness that the parents I loved and looked up to were not the heroes I wanted them to be. They, too, were afraid.
A native of Fort Smith, Dorothy Marcy now resides in Fayetteville where she operates a mental health counseling practice and writes in her spare time.