I’ll Figure It Out Later
THE FIRST THING I REMEMBER about being a person living in Little Rock, Arkansas, during the 1940s is the gut-wrenching fear in my heart and in my tummy that I was in danger. I didn’t know why exactly, but clouds of dread engulfed me every evening when day turned to night. I sensed from the very first moment of consciousness that I was living in a place where I was not welcome. By age three, I realized the culture of this small town in the Deep South was such that the color of my skin framed the entire scope of my life. It brought with it many ground rules designed to imprison and control everyone who was not white.
Of the eighty-eight thousand residents, sixty-six thousand were white, while twenty-two thousand were black. The white people and the black people lived in separate worlds that seemed to intersect only when absolutely necessary. My big questions from the beginning were “Who set up my community that way and why?” and “Why do whites get more privileges than we do—more houses, more books, more pets, and more food, more merchandise in all the downtown stores, all the police officers and firefighters, and all the transportation?” Even the city buses belonged to them.
When I felt frightened and overwhelmed, which was often, I would clench my fists so hard that my knuckles would hurt. Then I would press my open hands into my sides as hard as I could. I would let go and do it again and again until I felt in control of the terror bubbling inside me.
In order to feel safe, I always wanted to stay at home with my mother, Lois; my grandma, India; my papa, Will; and my baby brother, Conrad. Sometimes I stayed in my own room with my Raggedy Ann doll, who I called Mellie, my other stuffed animals, and my books. It was the only place I felt totally safe, as if I belonged; there was love and good in that small world for me. There was nobody there to be mean to me and call me nigger.
Our home was welcoming and cozy. There were always aromas of tasty dishes, flowers cut from our backyard in vases, doilies that Grandma India crocheted on tables, and squares of tapestry she had made on the walls. Tattered but freshly swept carpets covered the highly polished hardwood floors, and the rooms were filled with antique velvet-covered chairs inherited from my great-grandma. Grandma always hummed as she baked, especially when she prepared gingerbread men or coconut cake. I always felt loved, protected, and wanted by all the adults in my life.
On most days, my brother and I stayed in the house, pretending we were other people by dressing up or playing with paper dolls, puzzles, and blocks. When Grandma was outside, we followed her into the gated backyard, where we rolled around with our big red wagon and helped her water all the plants.
Come four o’clock in the afternoon, Grandma would let me go with her to the garden in the rear of the backyard to water what she called her four-o’clock plants. Often, I would stand beside her and wrap my hand in her freshly starched housedress as the water sprayed in my face. I never knew why she called them four-o’clocks; still I would remember for the rest of my life that this was the best time of my day. I waited for that watering all day because I could often have Grandma to myself. I felt the most akin to her because I resembled her more than I did my mother. She stood tall, with a medium body, and black curls about her shoulders. Her complexion was the same golden brown as mine. She made it okay for me when other people called me “big for my age” or said, “She’s very dark skinned compared to her mother.”
Garden time was a time when I could tell Grandma all the things—even the secret things—I was thinking about that I could not tell other people. I could ask her about what I didn’t understand in the world. It was a time I could ask her where God lived. People were always talking of God, and I wanted to know where exactly He was. I wanted to go visit Him in heaven to ask Him what was going on and why we had to be treated so badly by white people. When would it end? I could ask Grandma questions like “Who is God? I don’t really see Him. Is God stronger than the white people? Could He teach them to share with us?”
She would always end our talks in the garden with “That’s enough for today. A wee one like you doesn’t have space in her head for more deep thoughts. I don’t understand why you choose to talk about all these topics. You have too much worrying in your head, baby. You’re like a baby warrior! What about the joy of being a baby—about dolls and teddy bears? Let’s think about other things. How about helping me with dinner, young lady?”
I would hold my breath, unclench my fists, and wait for tomorrow. She was my very best friend and someone who always filled me with hope.
Sometimes later in the afternoon, we would listen to classical music, and Papa Will would sit on the big green velvet chair in the living room. I’d sit on his lap, and he would read to me, teach me my multiplication tables, or put together a puzzle. Often he would tell me about his sisters and brother and their life on a farm. His father was a minister, as were his uncles and many cousins. My Uncle Ben was a traveling minister.
I always felt safe when I was with Papa because to me he was as tall as the sky. He had broad shoulders and dark golden brown skin that was much like mine, as well as wavy black hair. No one was as big and protective as he was; no one ever made me feel safer than he did.
Mother Lois would come home by five every afternoon from her job at Baptist College. Some nights she would gather her books, take the chicken or peanut butter sandwich that Grandma handed her, and head out to the University of Arkansas, where she was taking classes for a bigger, higher degree—something called a master’s degree. I didn’t know what it really meant but figured it must be huge because she had so many heavy books. She said she would get a better teaching job and earn more money with that degree.
If Mother was studying at the kitchen table, with its chrome top and red leather chairs, I would sit at the table with her and turn the pages to look for words that I knew and pictures, which were most often not there. She would pick out a word and tell me what it meant—words like pedagogy and phenomenon. I would always giggle because I thought, Now I know something that none of my friends know.
“Dinner is served,” Grandma would call. “Melba Joy, sit down, fold your hands, and let’s say our prayers to thank God for the food we have!”
My favorite time of day was always dinner, when each of us was around the wooden table in the dining room, with warm aromas escaping from the hot dishes in the center. Grandma usually made fresh biscuits and vegetables for us even when we were only having a tiny speck of meat. Blessings, lemonade and milk, and laughter surrounded us in a joyful bubble.
On Sundays, we would have a new roast chicken for dinner. The meal would also include potatoes and a vegetable. By Thursday nights, the Sunday chick...