Authors: Alan Duff
MUM, WIKI AND MANU CALLED
in to say hello. Didn't hear the knocking
for the music from my new record player. Thank you, Jess. Forgot how
good looking my mother was, the long, thick, straight hair and proud
features Merita told me carried her noble ancestry. Green-grey eyes and a
mother's smile for her special son.
I cast around in case there was evidence of my lover's visit of last night,
if there was her perfume scent lingering, anything to say a woman of my
mother's age group had been here. My sister and brother naturally casting
kids' curious eyes everywhere.
Mum had a new hair styling; I wasn't sure it suited her. It was the
village woman trying to go city. Still, now I could see the appeal she
would have had to my American father. The explicit details weren't going
to enter my mind but I did see some parallels. Now I did.
Wiki most impressed by the amplifier and microphone set-up, as I
shifted my gear back and forth between Nigel's parents' garage and the flat
to get more practice in. As my kid sister and brother were my audience
here I boasted at how well the band was doing, but my mother ruined it:
with some help from money sent from America, she said. So I suddenly
discovered resentment at this unannounced family call since Mum was
scratchy. Wondered why she'd bothered. What if I'd been in an intimate
situation? And how would I have explained my lover's age?
All right, I'd developed a miserly side and should have thought of my
mother whose patchy income still came from filling in as a tourist guide
and doing the odd shift at hotel reception at the Waiwera Hotel.
Mum, I've been meaning to give you some money. But she waved me
away. If it doesn't come naturally then don't be forcing it, son. Makes it a
different kind of giving.
So now I felt guilt. Especially when she said they didn't have a lot of
time as they had a bus to catch back home. I'll take you. Just relax. Cup
of tea? Something stronger?
Nothing, thanks. Wiki, Manu, go and buy yourselves an ice-cream or
something from the shop we passed. I have something private to discuss
with your brother.
Soon as my siblings went out the door, Mum pulled a brown envelope
out of her handbag. Here. I want you to look at these.
Sarcastically I asked, who died?
She shot back, might be you in a minute. Open it.
I shook the contents out on to my lap. Photographs. Black and white.
One of my mother in Waiwera guide's uniform with a man whose face
was darker than hers, the photo must be old. Negro, but not coal black
like in a movie. Maybe half-caste. In civilian clothes. I had never seen one
Negro tourist in Waiwera. In fact never set eyes on a Negro, period. Just
on the movie screen, playing servant roles and over-acting the buffoon for
the white masters' amusement.
The other photograph was of — I think — the same man but a lot
clearer and a closer shot. A handsome man, languid smile like he was
posing for the camera. In a uniform. Military.
Wasn't until I looked up and saw my mother's face, those eyes saying
what the slightly parted lips did not need to, that I knew.
This is your father.
But he's a Negro . . . ?
I look at my arm with quite a different eye. I'm the same brown but
now I discern a certain duskiness. I have urge to rush to a mirror and
reconsider my face. Get the alarming thought of my contempt for Maori
slaves of the old days: Negroes were slaves.
This can't be.
My father is
With uncanny resemblance to Elvis. Or
the ruggedly handsome features of John Wayne. When I was younger my
dad was a cowboy — and they're all
with six-shooters blazing,
saving my life from Injuns. I've carried this choice of images in my mind
for years. This is
I think of coal, boot polish, the Devil, evil, all the bad and negative
moods described as black and dark, even the night is black and the day
is glorious light. A virgin doesn't get married in black. Nothing black is
pure. No food is black. Black is what is worn at funerals.
Mum, Negroes are poor.
Because they're not allowed to be rich.
They're servants, waiting on rich white folk — sucking up, more
No choice. They got to eat too. Rich white folk, as you call them, set
the rules. How would you be if our own white race set the rules? Well, in
a way they do but least brown folk have got opportunity to be whatever
they want. Just have to try a bit harder. But not the black folk in America.
Jess told me that much. It's called a colour bar, son. Don't be looking
down on half your existence.
Mum, we're high-born.
Her head starts to slow shake. I think she was making you feel good.
Merita doesn't lie. She said your great-grandfather was a very high
chief and his fathers before him. Said his head was so sacred a specially
appointed person had to feed him by hand. He kept slaves by the hundreds,
like an Egyptian pharaoh. He was like royalty. Why would Merita lie to
me? She loves me.
Now you have your answer, son. Believe me. I am not high-born. If I
was then Henry would have had to accept what I did without complaint.
The village would have taken my side no matter what. My families on
both sides are ordinary. Nothing wrong with that. You are what you are.
Well I'm no child of a descendant of slaves. And I'm sure as hell not
Her eyes narrow. You'd call your own father that?
Every concept I have of Negroes is in turmoil. I realise I'm prejudiced
too. My father sent a Louis Armstrong long player; I'm sure I'd seen the
same man in a movie playing the boggle-eyed fool nigger. Jess wrote the
man is a genius, a giant astride not just America but the whole world in his
musical influence. Why did such a colossus allow himself to be portrayed
that way? I am confused.
Where are you coming from with this slave stuff, Yank?
She walks to the door. Stops.
By the way, that was one beautiful voice you were playing. Who is
What sort of question is that after my own mother has hit me with a
Mel Carter, I answer. Puzzled. Hasn't she given me enough to deal
He's got to be a Negro with a voice like that. Some voice that
nigger has. I'll call by same time tomorrow. Bye, my special boy. Remember
we're only slaves to ideas and attitudes.
Holy cow, I'm half black.
CHICKENS SCRATCHED FOR FOOD IN
our dust, ate the worms and blown
seeds under the cluster of raised houses, foraged in the woods but always
came home to give us eggs and sometimes faithful heads to chop off and
thrill kids with a body pumping blood and running round like crazy —
and give the family food a couple hours later.
I remember at least two hogs in a wooden pen we threw scraps into and
the hogs bumping hard against the timber enclosure, snorting, gobbling
up like they'd never ate in a month; they'd eat anything. Their beady eyes
we kids could see warmth in, even intelligence, we'd talk or make noises
similar so they understood and dang if they didn't answer back.
In fact there were a good two dozen hogs and every household in
the shotgun line-up of shacks gave their scraps, picked up from different
rural sources: cabbage cut-offs, rotten lettuce and collard stalks, turnips,
corn husks, corn mash, corn liquid, unsold bread bought dirt cheap from
town bakers at cents a bin. We stole corn from fields, to feed ourselves
and the hogs; to us it was the sea, the unbroken vastness we'd never get to
experience in liquid, only pictures and imaginings impossible to re-create
middle of Mississippi except as a field that made a great sighing, moaning
in the wind and we could plunge into it and lose ourselves forever, swim
it in our minds, and when it turned back to land we could take a thousand
cobs if we chose, the theft not noticed among the millions of plump yellow
sweetnesses within green sheaths.
Not that we pined for the sea: we had a river and ponds, a few little
lakes; we pined for near nothing except to experience a whole week of
full bellies, to gorge every meal for all seven of the Lord's created days on
hog fried, grilled, boiled, roasted, cooked in coal embers, we dreamed of
feasting on crackling by the big bowl, trotter gristle, even the toe claws,
of feasting on the layers of meat, fat and crisped skin unless it was boiled
to just like chewing gum, of dining on the snout we'd talked to and
been answered back by, kind of sad but sure tasted good, chewing on
hickory-smoked ribs, fat-back, carving thick slices of roasted leg, having
it cured as bacon and ham hocks boiled for hours with greens, any greens.
Our mother salted strips and chunks of it, stewed pork in a chow mein
everyone swore was as good as the Chinese cooked; she had curry recipes
to turn old vegetables and going-off meat to biting, sweat-forming feasts;
we sopped up the gravy with pone bread, our tongues and throats burned
and we came back for more. This is what we pined for if we pined at all.
Just a week-long belly full of pork.
We ate boiled hog ears that had heard our every creeping movement
their way, picked meat from around empty eye sockets from eyeballs melted
in the cooking heat, eyes that had once told of a brain, a mind behind all
the enormity of snorting, snuffling bulk and hefty animal presence that looked
at kids from the far corners of a curious animal mind. We spat out bristles
missed in the scraping, we started one side of the hog's cooked head, on the
meat round the teeth rows we said was kissing hog lips and sucking on its
face. Munched through the length of tail, boiled bone sections of meat, fat,
skin combined. That's what we might have pined for living jammed up side by
side in each other's faces and lives and tempers and, we grew to see, lust
appetites and loves, to just once in a while get to gorge a week long on hog,
The adults went to work in town in old trucks and broken cars, some
walked to nearby fields, some stayed home. Kids went to our mother's
one-room school class, she was a Jeanes teacher, funded by something
called a foundation by the name of Anna T Jeanes who wanted Negro
children to get an education even though Miss Jeanes was white and rich
and had no children herself, or so our mother said. Was Miss Jeanes helped
make our family a little different.
Not saying set on another path, for you are who you're surrounded by,
mostly. But she gave us another form of language, structured grammarwise,
not sing-song spontaneous like ordinary Negroes. And we had the choice
of coded nigger talk to hide and disguise meaning from wrong ears, or
speak straight and correctly as our mother preferred. But then it's not a
mother's life to live: we each belong to our peers, more or less.
We were raised to be grateful to Miss Jeanes; without people like her
we Negroes would have worse lives when to kids it doesn't feel any but
what it is, and worse not a word that sprang to mind let alone worse again.
Since kids hardly ever went to town what did we have to compare to? We
only heard the stories and from time to regular time noticed the missing
faces gone to jail or heaven via the violent route or they went north, just
about all to do with white folk not liking us niggers and to get better paid
work and suffer less racial prejudice.
But really, a kid doesn't notice politics or what truly ails a people even
when it's notably us. Guess we were luckier than some.
Far as we knew we ate pretty good, mostly. Pig feet and chitterlings,
chicken fried and baked and done perleau style, gopher, armadillo
sometimes, tortoise, grits, black-eyed peas, boiled and roasted peanuts,
pecans we found growing wild near the river, gingerbread and buttermilk,
waffles with Georgia syrup, and in lean times meat grease and salty lard on
To us youngsters it was mostly sunshine days and all our spots in
the woods, the river, the areas of water we could cool in, explore, hide
sometimes; we played under the houses up on piles for Old Miss floods
making our tributary spill over, underneath there with the clucking
chickens, finding their eggs and listening to adults going at each other
with words or humping: we listened in disbelief to female moaning that
wasn't from a beating but why we had yet to have idea, we heard men
in that way and the gasps and groans above us and giggled in
imitating what we did not know.
We heard singing, individuals and joined, it meant little, everyone
sang even kids did and without really knowing. Like play, we just did
it and forgot soon after. Though of everything, it was the singing and
music-making that must have burrowed into our young minds and taken
up residence there, waiting quietly to be remembered, drawn from like a
wellspring when the time came for needing it or just to express.
Mostly we heard nothing but each other and what we could conjure
from our imaginations under the dark and cool of floorboards, scare off the
rats, get startled by a stirred armadillo, look out for snakes, listen out for
a hornet nest, get covered in spider webs, bitten by skeeters and chiggers,
just lay there talking to each other or a cast of characters imaginary and real
like our oldest friends there under the dwellings.
Guess most the men got drunk on Saturday nights, coon dick they
drank, they gambled on Florida Flip, craps, Sissy in the Barn, cooncan;
whooped and hollered and sometimes argued and fought with fists, a knife
sometimes, gun incidents became lore, like some of the characters did.
Most everyone dressed up, they visited other communities, but loved
the juke joints best; bought crazy brews from the turpentine stills, got
happy and sometimes went mad on it. And everyone danced and sang as
if tomorrow was never coming, and for some it never did. We'd see the
bodies lugged on to the back of a truck, or hear the stories. Life and death
went hand in hand, like they danced together.
We took to the woods to do some real hunting, rabbit, 'dillo, coon,
squirrel, turkey, gopher, anything that moved on land or in fresh water,
from morning till dark we lost ourselves in there, came home with mammals
and birds and fishes, or nothing at all but excuses and cuts and grazes for
our mommas and grandmas to tend and lick, say kind things to us failed
boy hunters, how we'd do better next time. Or we came home with food
for the table, sometimes to spread round a few tables and wallow in adults'
praise. Guns we knew early.
And when it rained we messed about in huts and shelters we'd
built, made mud pies in puddles, slid down wet clay slopes, or holed up
somewhere just listening to it drum on the roofs the millions of leaves
and needles, the continuous thrumming on the grateful ground drinking
greedily. We stood out in it with mouths opened to let the sky fall in to
quench thirst or just the sensation, it didn't matter, nothing matters when
you're a child in the endless sequence of growing up.
Our difference was, our mother made us read, made sure we kept up
with study tasks set by her pamphlets of teaching rules she kept locked in
our little classroom the storage cupboard where the children's books were
kept so as drunk or ignorant adults didn't use them for toilet paper, to light
We Hines kids were told we had extra responsibility on account of
our mother being the teacher who in turn owed to the generosity of Anna
T Jeanes and her foundation, but we were still what our peers were and
couldn't be nothing else, not till later in the years when these things started
heading us to what could only be revealed by the written word.
Only a very few families shared our compulsory interest in the written
word and not that it made a power of difference in how we lived: our
mother got a most modest salary, she taught for the love of it and the debt
she felt she owed to the kind white woman to enable her to help lift young
Negroes educationally and — she very much hoped — as advantage to her
own father-abandoned brood.
Life is an endless dream, no need for remembering as living it every
moment is enough. Things happen, sure they happen, and some of it bad
even real bad, but you kind of shut it out, does a kid, because childhood
is not meant to be painful it's supposed to be joy.
And so it turned out to be. Hell, I don't even remember it
actually meaning anything that we lived in the state of Mississippi, let alone
have awareness of things peculiar to the South and directly pertaining to
us, people of dark skin, colored the whites called us, and niggers and Negroes.
We were just kids growing up where we'd been born, learning from our mother
that one day a greater, wider world awaited us when it seemed we already had
that promised world right in our contented young hands.
Then youth made greater and greater claim on us, we practiced dance steps in
the same dust and mud our chickens pecked from, and as we grew all we wanted
was to express through dance and song and instrument playing, express our
African origins with feet yet three centuries firm in America. Thus we learned
our own steps and movements and means of patterned display. Acquired our own
unique suffering too.
Miles we walked to venues, hundreds strong of our own young
exuberant kind, competed with each other at any of a dozen styles of
dance, but tap in particular. We did whatever work was required to
purchase shiny patent-leather shoes with the steel toes and heels, the
threads to go with them; we practised prancing and preening the required
walks and stances and postures, then got lost in the pulsing, sweating,
floor-hammering madness of each other's smooth-moving company every
Saturday night without fail.
We danced till the sun came up and Sunday bells were commanding
our mothers and grandmothers to church and we had to hurry for fear of
punishment — not from fathers as men didn't figure like women did in
any of our communities: we weren't big town or city boys, we feared our
mothers and grandmothers. Naturally though every year we lost more and
more regard even respect for our elders, no matter that we loved them.
Rather dance than pray. Bed a fine girl than sit in church listening to
the congregation doing shouts, hollering to the same unanswering God,
singing like angels to His long-deaf ears, beseeching Him for what He
plainly had no intention of delivering.