[Born pale and black, a young girl learns a harsh lesson she can’t forget.]
May 1957- Lumberton, Mississippi
“Shut up, gal,” Mama shouted whipping my bare backside with her switch. It was long and skinny, the worse kind. It felt like hundreds of tiny razorblades dragging with each strike against my naked, pale skin.
There would be marks this time, I thought as I clung to the thin mattress praying for it to end.
When I’d come home from school earlier, the house had been empty and dark as it was every day. I’d hurried to the bathroom to clean up before Mama got home. I never knew when she’d show up, and I didn’t want her to see me. I knew she’d be mad, so I tried to hide what had happened.
I pulled off my torn and dirty clothes stuffing the white shirt and blue pleated skirt deep into the bottom of the dirty hamper. I wet my hair so I could comb the grass and dirt out of it and put it back into the same smooth ponytail I’d left with this morning.
Today wasn’t laundry day, but it was my week to do the washing so I planned to take care of the clothes later. There’d been another fight on the way home- my second this week. Mama couldn’t know. I knew she’d be upset if she found out. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t my fault because in her eyes it was always my fault. The same two girls had jumped me again today. Mama didn’t want to hear any of it. She never did. So I had to lie- I had no choice.
It started at school. Today Jessie, who sat behind me in class, had cut curls from my long, brown hair during an art lesson today. It hadn’t been the first time, but this time I told like Theresa told me to do. In front of the whole class Mrs. Branson our teacher told me to plait my hair from now on, and then she took Jessie’s plastic red scissors away. I knew then I would be in trouble. Jessie and her friend Bess caught me three blocks from school.
Jessie wanted payback, and she was bigger and stronger so she could get it. There was no way I could outrun her. When she caught up to me her smooth brown face was tight with anger, lips twisted. She said nothing as she knocked my books out of my hands. Her best friend Bess came right behind her pushing me so hard I fell face first in the mud and cut my knee.
“Look,” Bess said, “now she got some color,” the two best friends howled with laughter as they circled me the thick black mud clinging to my skin.
“Get up girl,” Jessie said kicking at me with her scuffed Mary Jane’s when I wouldn’t move, “I’ll give you something to tattle on.”
I didn’t want to fight, but I knew if I got up it would happen, but I couldn’t. I’d made a promise to my big sister Theresa and Mama I wouldn’t get in trouble again.
My heart leaped in my chest when I looked up and spotted Theresa walking by with a group of her friends.
“Theresa,” I yelled to get her attention. My sister glanced my way but didn’t stop. She just kept walking. I heard Jessie and Bess laughing, their harsh cackles echoing in the autumn air.
“See even her own sister don’t want nothing to do with the mutt,” Jessie said kicking another pile of dirt at me. When that got no response she pulled on my pony tail tugging hard until I felt a quick release. She walked away swinging three inches of my hair before tossing it in the wind for the strands to fall to the dirt.
“Come on girl,” Jessie said to her friend laughing as they both ran to catch up with Theresa’s group. My face burned with shame as the group of girls turned the corner going in the opposite direction of the little grey house Mama, Theresa and I had lived in for the past two months.
Holding back tears I refused to cry, as I dragged myself to my feet, and limped the remaining four blocks, alone. Once home I scrubbed myself clean at the sink and hid my dirty clothes in the bottom of the hamper. I didn’t want to think about the fights or the betrayal.
We’re sisters and we’re supposed to watch out for each other. That’s what Grand used to say. Theresa used to say it to.
I waited on the porch for her to come home, dividing my time between doing homework and napping once I’d finished. When dusk settled I awakened to the sounds of Mama and Theresa’s voices drifting from the back of our shotgun house. It was dark outside, but I stayed on the porch not wanting to go inside.
“Stop skulking around, girl,” Mama yelled out to me after my feet squeaked on the wooden floorboards one too many times. Unable to avoid it any longer I walked to the small kitchen at the back of the house. Both Mama and Theresa were at the kitchen table ironing clothes. I sat opposite the two of them. Their conversation as usual never stopped.
At thirteen Theresa was a miniature version of Mama. They were so much alike. Both Mama and Theresa were the same height and had the same dark brown skin and shoulder length pressed hair. Looking at the two of them there was no question they were mother and daughter. With me there was always a question. Pale, petite, with a curly mane of auburn curls, I looked like no one in our family.
I learned early on though not to ask about my father. The first and only time I did Mama smacked me so hard my cheek stung for the rest of the day.
Although Mama never talked about it, I’d overheard Grand once late at night whispering on the phone. Who she was talking to, I didn’t know, but I heard enough.
My father was one of several white men that attacked my mother a couple of months after she’d lost her husband, Theresa’s father, in a car accident. It happened one night Mama had been walking home from work having missed the bus from the house she worked at as a maid. She didn’t know her attackers and the crime was never reported. Instead she, Theresa and Grand moved a couple of towns away to start over. Eight months later, I was delivered- the lightest skinned baby in the Negro nursery.
There were questions and funny looks from neighbors, but Grand always told those who dared to ask I was albino. I didn’t know what that was so once I asked Grand if I really was an albino. Grand said, “Naw, child, but if they stupid enough to ask a rude question, then they deserve a stupid answer. It ain’t none of their business.” Grand was right, of course. Everyone knew it wasn’t the truth, but no one questioned Grand’s answer- ever, but now she was gone too.
She was a tough woman, my Grand. She scared me sometimes, but she was fair. I didn’t realize how much I’d miss that until she was gone.
Dread filled my stomach when I saw Mama digging through the dirty laundry. When she pulled out my school clothes from earlier today I felt my stomach drop.
“What happened now,” Mama asked looking at me, and then Theresa when I remained frozen too scared to speak. Holding up the dirty torn clothes, in one swollen fist Mama glared at both of us with piercing eyes.
“She started another fight,” Theresa said quickly. “Some of the girls told me she sassed the teacher at school too.” Shaking my head, I denied it but Mama wasn’t listening. “Go to your bed!”
I knew better than to argue once Mama made her decision as to which of us were at fault. Once she decided who to believe, which was always Theresa, Mama never changed her mind. Mama was angry and someone had to be punished.
Sitting on my bed I waited. My heart pounded in my chest as I listened to the screen door bang shut. A few minutes later, I heard the door again. Theresa had returned with the switch.
Mama’s heavy footsteps grew louder and louder in the hall as she got closer. I kept my head down as the pink paint-chipped door of our bedroom squeaked opened.
“Lay down,” Mama said. I did as she said pushing my thoughts away willing myself to think of anyplace else, anything else. Shaking, I lay with the left side of my face pressed against my pillow facing the wall. This wasn’t the first time Theresa told on me, but this time I hadn’t done anything wrong. In fact I’d done just what she’d said to do.
“You can’t let them get to you,” Theresa said last week after a group of kids followed me home again. Once again it was Jessie as ring leader taunting me, calling me ugly names. “Mama said we ain’t moving no more. You got to try harder to fit in.” Theresa looked away from my pursed lips both of us knowing it was easier said than done.
“Can’t you talk to them,” I’d asked my sister. “They like you.”
“Next time,” Theresa said, “the next time one of them says something to you I’ll tell them to lay off, okay?” I shook my head thankfully as we both sat at the kitchen table waiting for the girls outside to leave. “You just have to learn to ignore them, okay?” I nodded to Theresa. “I can’t keep fighting your battles, Bug,” she’d said calling me by my nickname.
“Thanks Reesie,” I said, “I love you.”
“Love you too,” Theresa said rolling her eyes, a small smile on her full lips. That was last week. Then the fight happened two days ago. Theresa had stopped it then, just like she said she would, but today she’d walked past me. She’d warned me she would, but I hadn’t believed her. That was my mistake.
I watched Mama’s shadow on the wall as she raised the switch. With each crack against my bare skin my body shook with pain. My thoughts grew darker and darker as the pain expanded exploding into tiny sharp pieces I knew I’d never be able to piece back together.
Gasping for air a flash of rage like I’d never felt before took over me as my screams crawled out of my chest. Soon I was on my feet grabbing for the switch in Mama’s hand. I grunted and gurgled on my own spit as we fought for control. The sour smell of sweat slicked bodies and fear filled the tiny bedroom as I fought for my life.
My thought screamed for me to “run!” and a split second later I was moving. In my mind I saw myself running down the street in nothing but my sky blue t-shirt and white underwear, but I didn’t make it out the bedroom door. Hands held me back; pulled me down, back down on the tiny bed with Theresa’s knee firmly planted in my back.
“Hold her down,” Mama yelled, as more hits came. “Shut up gal,” crack, “shut up gal,” crack. “Shut up before I give you something to yell about.” I screamed louder and louder. I screamed until my voice gave out and only rasps and panting would come my eyes bugging as I gasped for air. “When I tell you to mind,” Mama said breathing hard, “you gonna learn to mind.” The hits had stopped, but I was still shaking. I felt Theresa move off of the bed, the weight lifted off my back making me feel I might float away. “Theresa’s fighting days for you are over, girl you hear me?”
“Ain’t nobody got time for you and your uppity ways, gal,” Mama huffed her heels clopping on the wood floor. “You going to learn how to fit in, cause you ain’t no better than the rest of us,” Mama said from the doorway breathing hard, “and it’s time you realized that. You hear me Valetta?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said facing the wall.
Mama closed the door behind her. Seconds later I felt the softness of Theresa’s afghan on my bruised skin. The afghan had been Theresa’s birthday present from Grand before she died. I listened to Theresa walk back across the room to lie down on her bed. The weight of the pink and purple afghan scratched my skin, but that wasn’t why I pushed it off and onto the floor.
I pushed it off because I wanted my half-sister to see what she’d done. I wanted her to see the angry red welts rising on my skin. Eventually they would turn black and then blue and I would make sure she saw those as well.
I’d learned a valuable lesson.
Theresa said she loved me, but what she done wasn’t love. Love didn’t hurt, love didn’t humiliate, and love didn’t walk by you when you were lying scared in the dirt. Love didn’t hold you down with a knee in your back and beat you. It was a hard lesson to learn, but I did. Or at least I thought I had.
Years later after the memories had been dulled enough to claim forgetfulness, I thought I’d move on. I hadn’t.
“Hurt people hurt,” Grand used to say. A smart lady she was, because I’d been hurt a whole, whole lot.
So years later after I married, had my only child- a girl, I knew I was supposed to know better. I was supposed to do better, but I didn’t. Trapped by the stinking foulness of my past, it tainted everything.
Every time I looked at her all I could think was, “Why should she get more than I’d gotten?”