Authors: Alan Duff
THIS IS NOT ME, YOU
got to understand this. He is close to pleading, yet I
do understand. My father is on another journey, this is but temporary
abode, and now I'm here maybe we can share that journey. I don't
care he lives here, not now. We are one in our happy disbelief, father
and son united. And with the community all excited it transforms my
Sure, this is poverty like I've never seen. But there are million-dollar
smiles and everyone wants to touch me, make funny comments which I
don't get the humour of but nor do I expect to. The laughter is enough:
it convulses them, bends them at the knee, they rock on heels, slap hands,
thighs, fling pink palms skywards, black faces shine with a sheen of sweat
from the humidity and heat already got up. The children touch me gingerly,
as if expecting an explosion; run away as soon contact is made, giggling.
Led by the woman, several adults start up singing and immediately others
set up a rhythmic beat of complex hand-clapping. Kids twist and contort
into dancing, feet slipping and sliding in the mud. I have the urge to move
and to sing with them.
They praise the Lord and thank God for sending me to my daddy.
The women are calling out tasks they must do to prepare for a celebration.
My daddy is speechless with joy, keeps touching my face, feeling my hair,
stepping back to behold me.
The woman introduces herself with a hug, she smells of sweat yet not
offensive. I'm Marion, the preacher's wife. Tonight we gonna have a big
party to welcome you, young man. You've come home, son. Jess's boy
done come home.
Up these steps to my father's house. He starts apologising. I guess
for where and how he lives, inside a dark, near windowless dwelling,
same simple as Merita's house but without the sulphur smell. Reminded I
forgot to say goodbye to Merita. My eyes adjusting to the lack of natural
light. What if there is no bathroom for my first shower since the hotel in
Atlanta? Surely electricity for an iron to press fresh clothes so I can look
A light goes on above my head. My father's hand arrives on my
shoulder. Where did you sleep last night? How did you get here so early?
Why didn't you tell me you were coming? In heaven though a man is at
seeing you, he adds. Like I been hit by a train.
He turns me around. He's a good two inches taller than me and this
is a Negro I'm looking at — I've seen pictures of men who look like
this, might have seen one or two in movies, not the pop-eyed coal-black
servant types that ridicule the race — this one is proud and handsome, and
I am half of him, my music owes to his genes, to those people outside.
Music that's born of the American Negroes' suffering. Me, I have not
suffered, only had to endure Henry's silence. Unlike them, I got a free
ride on music's train.
His teeth keep breaking out gleaming white, his chuckle has a timbre,
his lithe muscular body won't stay still: a man so different to any I've
experienced. A black man.
Spontaneous, that's the word comes to mind. My father and all those
people I can hear talking, laughing, shouting, singing outside, they are the
same: of and in the moment.
I tell him of my worsening confusion and doubts as the journey went
on, my long ship voyage, the mix-ups, bussing right across America, a
hotel stay in Atlanta and me confused and scared at big-city life. Of last
night's Greyhound midnight arrival.
Two white men, you said?
With guns. Told me some woman called I-Spy saw me on the street,
called them to check me out. They didn't want to wake the sheriff.
Be like waking the Devil himself. I-Spy thinks she owns the town.
A rifle out the window. The other had a pistol on his lap. But I didn't
feel in danger.
Jess chuckles. Sorry, hearing the way you talk brings back memories.
That accent. You give my name?
No, I said. They didn't ask.
Say who they were?
No, they did not.
He went back to smiling. Hey, now look at you. Standing right here
in the flesh. My boy. My son. This is a miracle. But you must be tired.
Too excited to feel tired.
Ain't you saying it. Me too. You wanting to get cleaned up?
My nod hesitant. I'm thinking outside toilet, like Chud's, could be a
rainwater tank shower.
Right this way. I follow him past a small, timber-slab dining table
and a strange mix of blue velvet-upholstered chairs, four. There's an
embroidered white lace cloth sat square in the middle of it, a decorative
vase. Now a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf, not something I grew up with:
my books school or library loaned, or lent by Mrs Mac. I've been in worse
Yet he's saying, sorry if I led you to think I was wealthy, lived in a
fancy house. Stops at a closed door.
Wanted you to think well of me. See, I had a problem with drink. It
didn't like me. And I didn't like myself. Went places no self-respecting
man should go. I'd give up, and time and again it would claim me back.
Then he looked at me different. You wouldn't have a problem with
alcohol by any chance?
Smiling, I tell him my mother thinks so. But I don't wake up craving
a drink if that's what you mean.
Good. And your momma, how is she, what does she look like?
People say she's aged well. I can't tell. She's my mother. Thinking: and
your old lover. And my father. Unbelievable.
Still looks the same young and beautiful the photo she sent. Oh, man,
someone tell me this is just a dream.
We stare at each other, shake heads, grin then laugh.
Through that door, son, you'll find the bathroom. Take your time.
Rest up on the bed over there while I drive to tell the boss some lies to be
off work. Don't be shy to go and say howdy to the neighbours.
Walk into a bathroom as good as the hotel in Atlanta. I think my father
is a man of many surprises. I'm in a daze.
MY FATHER CAME BACK AND
asked what story I had forgotten to tell him
about why I was visiting Piney Woods. Turned out his bosses are one and
same who came to check me out, pointed the gun when I told them my
destination. Jess said only years of practice at
around white people
enabled him to overhear the pair's story, recognise me in it, concur that
I was the son of his closest wartime buddy. He told me how lucky I was,
that they were Klan members.
And you work for them?
Klan means less than ordinary men pointing the finger at Negroes that
they are lesser. I just never mess with them. The odds are stacked all on
their side — at present.
But no elaboration followed.
Piney Woods community put on a big celebration. An assortment of
beer and hard liquor soon had everyone primed. They sat on stoops, cut-down
oil drums and log cut-offs, spilled off outdoor tables and benches, a
happy chaos. Kids ran up and touched me like I was poisonous, ran away
squealing, stood in groups staring, made me acutely aware of not looking
like one of them. Meat grilled on metal racks, over coal fires, came out
in pots boiled on stoves inside. Kids ran hither and thither on shouted
instructions from the women. Women outnumbered men. They all sang
and danced to flaming cinder torch light: it felt like Africa. Felt like a party
at home, of Waiwera Maoris in celebration.
Kids danced with adults, fat people floated and pirouetted on air, the
muscular and the skinny both, sublime pictures of blurring feet, twisting,
straining, snapping muscles. Limbs cut loose and seemed to multiply, feet
drummed complex patterns on the dirt, art was made of coordinated arm
and torso movements, bobbing heads had their own rhythm like selfcontained
I could have been the prodigal son returned to a home he'd never
been to — no glorious deeds needed, I was just their son. Women kissed
and hugged me, danced sexually at me, moved and swayed like mothers
teaching me, came on like wild prime prospects out to woo or claim,
grandmothers used me to transport themselves back to a young vital past.
Fires and flaming torches lit us like ancient camp fires. Little kids fell
asleep in mothers' arms. Older kids made perfect imitations of every slick
Lord, they sang better than angels, like life-trained choir members
of highest order. Individuals put on star performances, instrumentalists
pounded and plucked, strummed and stroked, sent sound rushing like
scent through the pines — I swear I heard the needles set off like a billion
Voices learned from cotton fields and prison farm chain gangs and
windowless cells and cold rented rooms and grim bars and seedy clubs and
ceaselessly cruel existence . . . all stepped up smiling ready to do the next
Marion, the preacher's wife, stood up and sang like Mahalia Jackson.
Turned everyone silent and closed eyes and keened every ear until she
was done. To cheering, clapping and whooping she hip-swayed over and
teasingly thrust herself at me like another person of ungodly ways. A group
sang mighty praise to God that resounded in the treetops and questioned
the hearts of non-believers.
Men, dressed to the nines, came strutting down shack steps like from a
castle, a glorious mansion, and pranced into torch-lit centre ring like black
peacocks, preening in sheer white suits, white shoes, black suits, white
shirt, black bow tie, and Lord did they dance. My father one of them, all
The people cut loose on their worn, hard earth, a little softened by the
rain. Like free spirits broken loose from their chains. Roots they call it.
Throughout Jess and I kept staring at each other, and the drunker
I got on different spirits and the people, the more emotional I got. I cried.
He cried. We all laughed. All sang. Made music and percussion from timber
pieces, broken broom handle, cut-down pool cue, bits of metal and leather
and rolled-up cloth, blew brass horns, strummed guitars, pounded bongos, plucked
banjo, flying hands across the keyboard of an accordion. And we partied till
near dawn, till like one of Henry's breakfast servings came fried chitterlings,
pig intestines back home, sheep innards the Maoris called terotero. With pone
bread served up with laughter and big-bottomed women making sexual tease.
Jess introduces me to his world, away from the township on the highways
in every direction. In his older model Chevy we go down side roads of
endless plantations worked by Negro labour. Along tree-flanked dirt roads
accompanied by constant radio music and Jess's beautiful voice sometimes
singing along with a number. The passenger keeps throwing his father
looks of disbelief.
At hearing and seeing a man who is a foreigner, half-Negro and yet
my father. My
? His sing-song voice, how he can go from straight talk
to near incomprehensible Negro-speak. Find out where my throaty laugh
comes from and my musical ear.
Assailed by endless fields of corn we drive for hours as radio announcers
proclaim the virtues of their competing stations. The foreign-born son is
in music heaven.
We go to pool halls and smoky cafes and food joints, to hang out as
he calls it, and for a father to proudly introduce me as his son from New
Zealand, to those he feels will take us at face value. Fried chicken, pork
ribs, collard greens, grits, burgers our staple diet, from diners and fast food
joints patronised by one race. Blacks. Coloureds they call it.
Other than from a distance I do not see one white person anywhere
we go. I have not yet adjusted yet to the
signs, still wince at
stencilled above commercial establishment doorways.
Yet my father's cheerful disposition never falters; he clicks fingers in
time to every song on the radio, to music in his head. Hardly a word on
racial segregation. When he must know it's new and profoundly disturbing
to me, that actual laws are written to exclude him — us — on account of
race. This is America?
I've grown up worshipping a false idol. In the land of the so-called
free, a nigger for four weeks. How can that be?
He refuses my offer to pay for anything. At nights we hit juke joints,
fun houses where near anything goes, a brothel a dance bar . . . live
music so good I am fearful for my own mediocre talent, inadequate in
comparison. My father tells me it's a timing thing, every black person born
with a metronome inside, a born tonal quality and the life situation being
the biggest factors. It will come to you, he assures, it's in your blood. We
living here have had lifetimes of rubbing off on one another, our influences
come from every corner, from small rural towns to big-city ghettoes.
I hear singers of impossible off-beat timing. Voices that fuse in with
the bass drum beat as if one and the same source. Witness obese dancers
who can spin on a dime, move with speed and grace, what my father calls
panache and fling and deadly movers.
One night this old guy is revealed from a pulled black curtain in a circle
of spotlight. Alone, he has a foot drum set, mouth organ on attachment
to his shoulder, guitar and a microphone. And a totally hushed, expectant
crowd. His stage name is Satan, and his performance of blues and soul is
virtuoso. I say genius. My father says America has such talent in every
second bar and juke joint.
I wallow in music and drown in booze. Get drunk on coon dick,
made from boiled beef bones, fermented grapefruit and corn meal mash.
Smoke weed with my father and get to walk through the doors it opens to
higher musical appreciation.
From Jess I learn how we all owe the influence of country and western
music. We talk about Elvis Presley's influences being black and country
music. The pair of us in a duet Elvis number as pastoral Mississippi goes
by out the car windows. Jess does not believe the man is a racist. But Elvis
can't go public on having coloured buddies, not in the deep South.
We get home in the early hours, sometimes after dawn, sleep till noon
and wake to a friendly Marion offering to cook late breakfast, or lunch,
chastising that Jess is leading me astray. They have a close bond. Though
her first is to God, a Southern Baptist God. Mostly we eat lunch on the
run with Mississippi scenery, do pool halls or a river swim afternoons, go
all night on music and me on booze and weed, my father just the smoke.
Most show no surprise that I am Jess's son. Must be I'm melding into
the human scenery more. Every day I make another adjustment to the idea
that I'm one of them, despite my accent and upbringing on another planet.
That I am a Negro.
One day he takes me to a cemetery. To his mother's grave. Your
grandma was a teacher. She got high on written words.
Inscribed on her headstone the words: To Miss Anna T Jeanes, her
Foundation, for lifting me, lifting others. Luana Hines 1899–1962. Beloved
teacher of colored children.
This is my grandmother. Glad she is not the stereotype of a cotton
field worker, a housemaid.
Plantations of sorghum, corn, soy, peanuts abound. I learn Negro
sharecroppers have been forced to walk off their cotton-producing land
because machinery has overtaken their manual labour. Negroes toil on
every plantation, with whites in charge. Comparing to home would be
meaningless. We are too much the warrior people to have known, let
alone suffered, such extended suffering.
We go to a Toe Party, where men bid on toes of women hiding
behind a curtain. Trick is to judge beauty and form, personality somehow,
on just a pair of feet. The buyer obliged to buy drinks all night for his
chosen female. Or hightail it if he's bought an ugly damsel.
Sometimes a coloureds-only sign brings out the proud Maori
in me. I want to do something back to show how wrong it is. But each day,
by the moment sometimes, it grows on me: being nigger. Learning there are
quite different rules.
We're at this jive joint one night and we hear word there's trouble brewing.
My father steers me into a dark corner, and soon three giant Negroes walk
in and go over to a group of younger men.
A huge fight breaks out, bodies fly everywhere, knives flash, I cower
at hearing gunshots. The trio leave. There are two dead bodies on the
My father takes us out the back way, says it's the other side of life as
nigger. We turn in on ourselves, take our hatred and frustrations out on
each other black on black, ever since our ancestors arrived in chains and
got bought and sold like cattle.
I pick up some of the jargon, but no intention of using it: in power,
jenk, bookooing, woofing, pickin' de box. I discover colour discrimination:
skillet blonde is a very black and therefore less desirable person. I'm a
quadroon, being quarter Negro; the one-eighth mulatto category is the
most desirable pale status. Seems we're all prejudiced.
Jess delivers weed to the lumber camps, owns up how he made the
money to send me. I say without it we'd never be together, have become
quite partial to a good smoke too. And the liquor curse might have been
exposed, for I am drinking every night till the early morning.
We visit other coloured settlements, clubs, bars of every description,
even his hairdresser, an experience in itself of humorous exchange and
hair-cutting like dance performances, staff and customers teasing each
other, that way they explode in laughter and body movement. My father
cramming in much as he can.
In the woods shown woodpeckers, squirrels, a shuffling armadillo,
animals from my school books and American movies. We never run out of
things to talk about, mostly Jess telling of this place, how life is for a coloured
person and it's certainly not much grim telling, not how he tells it.
Our visits to Whitecave town are few and brief, to buy groceries at the
coloured store, Jess to do his banking: banks can't have a colour bar as
would mean black-owned and to his knowledge no Negro owns
a bank. Yet he says it with that grin you wouldn't think of challenging, a
man certain his wishes and dreams will one day come true.
Then you see the reality, of every store queue giving priority to whites
not blacks. How deferential, even subservient, they've been made. I see
how unlike Maoris Negroes are: no Maori would put up with being treated
with such contempt for a second. In our country some whites are scared
of Maoris. We are the warrior class and let none forget that, no matter
the ones with the least money. We have law on our side, do Maoris, and
rights. But then this is not my home country. I must not compare; history
and sizes and complexities are too different.
Church spires are visible everywhere in the township. These are people
of God, yet I must be wary or they will harm me. To be a Negro citizen
of this country, I must know the boundaries, strict limitations and always
my exposure even in going about daily business. But just can't quite get
myself to believe it.
Jess fears getting known to the police and the local self-appointed
moral guardians as a civil rights activist. He did go up to join the 1963
March on Washington, a quarter-million Negroes with tens of thousands
of sympathetic white northerners. Martin Luther King made a famous
speech that day from Lincoln Memorial steps, my father said.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with
the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into
an oasis of freedom and justice.
Quoting this on foot as we near a bridge and small town across from a
river we followed for several miles one cooler afternoon. Where my father
tells in haunted voice that he and his brother witnessed the lynching of a
Negro woman, off that bridge.
I was fifteen. My brother eighteen. Got me started on drinking that
very night, he recalls.