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Chapter One 1978. The year I turned ten and the year my mama killed herself. She was thirty-five, and dying is the last thing that should have been on her mind. People used to say Mama had an earthy beauty about her—almost like one day she just sprung up from the ground like a field of wild honeysuckle or a tall, sprawling Chinaberry tree. She had skin the color of melted toffee and hair that was thick and curly, hanging in wild, unruly waves on her shoulders. ―Everything needs to be free sometimes, Sylvia. Even hair,‖ she‘d say. Mama would let me wear my hair loose like hers on the weekends, but for school, she would put it in cornrows or plaits that hung to my shoulders. I remember spending hours on the front porch, me sitting between Mama‘s legs holding the can of Royal Crown while she sectioned my hair into little parts and rubbed hair grease into them. I swear, your head has never been loved on if somebody hasn‘t oiled your scalp. While she tended to my hair, she would cornrow it and tell me fairytales, except, in her stories, the main characters were little black girls who looked like me. ―You see, there was this one girl called Little Red, and she was going down the block a ways to see her Big Mama who felt kind of poorly,‖ Mama would say while she braided my hair as tight as she could. At times my scalp would feel as if it was on fire. At times, I could have sworn she‘d gathered up some of my scalp 1

into those little mini-braids. But when Mama began telling me one of her stories, I would forget how much the hair braiding hurt because in those moments, I magically became Little Red Riding Hood or Gretel or Sleeping Beauty. It didn‘t matter I didn‘t favor any of the pictures of those fairytale girls who were in my storybooks; all that mattered was Mama had a way of making me – with my dark skin, flat nose, and long, nappy hair – feel just like a fairy princess. Mama and me lived in a two-story house in the West End of Louisville where most of the poor, black people lived. Our house was one of the smaller houses on 26th and Broadway. Mama rented it from this fat white dude named Louie. In fact, most folks called him Fat Louie behind his back. He never talked much; he just came to the door on the first Friday of every month with his hands out for Mama‘s rent check. Our house was one of the most rundown. Every first Friday Mama would complain to Fat Louie about the things he needed to fix, but he would just look past her like she wasn‘t even talking. Several of the bricks on our house were missing, and a few of the windows were broken. Mama stuffed those windows with paper to keep the air out. The front porch had almost caved in on one side, but inside our house, things were different. Mama made things as bright and happy as she could. We probably could have rented an apartment in the projects that would


have been nicer than our house, but Mama said she had no plans to be beholden to any man, especially Uncle Sam. All of our furniture came from the Goodwill or yard sales, but Mama made slip covers for the chairs and couch in the living room, and she painted honeysuckle, chrysanthemums, and irises on the dining room table and chairs. We sewed together old scraps of dresses I didn‘t wear anymore and made little throw rugs to put in the entry way. Mama also painted and drew pictures for the walls. She did a charcoal drawing of me and she hung it in the front hallway. Mama said she wanted my face to be the first thing people saw when they walked in the door. Everybody said it looked just like me too. ―Always surround yourself with color, Sylvia,‖ she said. ―Then you‘ll never be sad. Nobody can be sad when they‘re surrounded by color.‖ So our walls were painted bright, sunflower yellows; deep, azure blues; and eye-popping, emerald greens. I called our house Oz and I loved to pretend I was Dorothy. I didn‘t have a real dog, but I had a little stuffed dog with a missing left eye. I called him Toto. For my eighth birthday, me and Mama planned this elaborate birthday party and invited all 30 of the kids in my third grade class. The invitations asked all of the kids to dress like their favorite character from The Wizard of Oz. Every time I thought about my party, I would get excited. I just knew it would be the best party 3

ever. I woke up at two in the morning and put on my party clothes and when Mama finally got up a few hours later, she laughed at my silliness, but she let me stay in my clothes. Finally, the time for my party grew near. The invitation said the party would begin promptly at two p.m., but I told Mama we should have everything ready by no later than one-thirty; just in case people showed up early. Two o‘clock came. Girl, you know how black folks are with time, Mama said. They’re just running late. Don’t worry. Three-thirty came. Maybe we didn’t put down the right time. I could try and call up some people. Then four. Then fivefifty. I’m sorry, baby. I was heartbroken. Not a single kid showed up. Miss Cora, our next door neighbor, came over but to me she didn‘t count. She counted because she was special, but she didn‘t count because she was grandmother -age. I wanted kids my age to attend my party. Mama said it didn‘t matter those kids didn‘t show up because we were going to eat cake and play like we were Dorothy and Glenda the Good Witch. ―Come on girl, hop to it. We‘re about to be off to see the Wizard,‖ she announced, with her hands on her hips. I stood up and wiped the tears as they slowly inched down my face. ―Come on. The Tin Man, Scarecrow, and Cowardly Lion are waiting on you, girlfriend.‖ Mama took me by the hand and we ran to her room. She put on her long white dressing gown and then she put on a little crown from my toy box she had 4

made for me out of aluminum foil and perched it on her head all cockeyed. I already had on my blue and white pinafore and the red Buster Brown shoes Mama got me for my birthday. Mama told me to put Toto in my old Easter basket and before I knew it, she and I were dancing around the room singing, ―We‘re off to see the Wizard.‖ I forgot about the fact no one showed up for my birthday. Mama and I had so much fun, at that moment, sadness had no way to touch us. But the sadness still found Mama even though we had color all around us. All through my childhood, the sadness would hunt Mama down and leave us both helpless like puppies left under an abandoned house. Her sadness would start out as a tear here and there, and then there would be times when she would make me miss school and stay in bed with her all day while she held me tight and cried — loud, gut-wrenching sobs. She would get me to call the Brown Hotel where she worked in the Housekeeping Department and tell Mr. Schlesinger, her supervisor, she was sick. Mr. Schlesinger would always say okay and tell me to tell Mama he hoped she‘d feel better soon. And she would. Get better, I mean. For a while. For a time, shortly after my eighth birthday, Mama took night classes at Jefferson Community College. She would go there after work at the Brown. I would stay with Miss Cora on those nights or with Mama‘s best friend, Uncle Ray, her sometimes boyfriend.


Mama seemed so happy when she first started school. I remember how proud she was when she came home with all of her school books. ―Books are the key, Syl. Books open the door to everything,‖ she said, showing each book to me, telling me what she thought she would learn from them. On the nights she didn‘t have school, we‘d sit and do our homework together. Mama said she wanted to get a nursing degree first, and then after a while, she said she might go back to be a doctor. ―Baby girl, you just wait and see. Once Mama finishes school, we‘ll be on easy street. We‘ll buy us a house out on the east side of town and live just like the rich white folks do,‖ she said. I remember hugging her and laughing, excited because she was so excited. The first quarter, she made all A‘s. Mama said her English teacher said she had a way with words and should think about becoming a writer or an English teacher. Mama showed me the essay. It had a big fat ―A‖ on top and the words, ―Great Job!‖ I truly felt like everything would be all right then. One night, during her third quarter at school, Mama came home and said she quit. Even though the summer heat was blistering outside, she built a fire in the fireplace and burned all of her books. Introduction to Biology, Calculus 101, Western Civilization II. All of them in flames. I cried. I loved books. I was always


somewhere reading a book or a magazine. I had a little bookshelf by my bed where I kept all of my special, favorite books. While Mama knelt in front of the fireplace crying and throwing in book after book, I ran upstairs to my bedroom and grabbed as many of my books as I could carry. Little House on the Prairie. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret. I climbed up the little ladder outside my door leading up to the attic, dropping a few books as I climbed. The attic wasn‘t much more than a crawl space. I couldn‘t even stand up in it. When I finally made it up into the dark, damp attic, I pulled the little string which turned on the light and hid as many books as I could inside of the Delmonte Peach box I used as my hope chest. When I went back downstairs, Mama sat in her favorite chair by the window in the living room, drinking a glass of vodka. The fire still burned in the fireplace, but it had calmed down and so had Mama. Instead of the raging flames it was before I went upstairs, it was now a low fire – mostly just ashes now. Mama stared out the window – not really looking at anything. I wanted to ask her why she quit school and why she burned up all her books, but I didn‘t. I just crept over to her and sat on the floor by her chair and laid my head against her knee. She reached down and absently patted my head. We sat like that for a while, her sipping on her vodka, staring out the window and patting my head, and me,


swallowing back tears. A few nights later Mama came to my room and climbed into my twin bed with me. ―Cleaning up other folks‘ mess is just like counting, Syl. Rote memory. There‘s no adding, no subtracting or dividing, just straight counting. Cleaning up other folks mess is easier than school and careers.‖ I didn‘t say anything. I didn‘t know what to say. I just snuggled up close to her, inhaling the faint scent of honeysuckle on Mama‘s skin. Afterwards, Mama‘s mind took a turn for the worse. She still had good days, but they were becoming fewer and far between. All the special things she used to do, she stopped doing. Like making her clothes and mine, combing our hair, or taking out her oil paints and creating colorful pictures – she just stopped. The Mama I knew seemed to be vanishing away like a wisp of smoke. Crazy seemed to find Mama no matter how much she ran from it and after a while, I think Mama got tired of running. Eventually, she just slowed up and let Crazy have its way with her. People still talked about Mama – especially the women in the neighborhood. I‘d hear them giggling and laughing when Mama would be having one of her bad days. Mama would walk down the street to the pool hall for a Diet Pepsi, dressed in an oversized, gray sweatshirt; dirty blue jeans; and a long, mangy coat. She would be barefoot and her hair would be tied up in a dirty black head scarf. It 8

didn‘t matter if it was cold or hot, Mama would dress in her sad clothes when she didn‘t feel good. Mama didn‘t even seem to notice the talk, and there was plenty of it. Instead of talking about how beautiful she was, they talked about what a shame how she let herself go. Yet, not a one of them minded hitting her up for a little change until their checks came in, or asking her to hook up their hair with one of them natural styles. I sometimes wondered if she knew they talked about her when one of them would come creeping up to the porch with their hands out. She‘d try to help if she could and never even acted like she knew they had been running their mouths. Well, I cared, and I hated them. I tried not to hate them because Miss Cora, our neighbor, said hating was as bad as killing but it was almost impossible for me not to be angry at those gossiping women. The houses on 25th and Broadway were so close together Miss Cora said if someone broke wind in their own house, their neighbor could smell it in the other. I laughed at her joke. Miss Cora always said funny things, even without meaning to be funny. Miss Cora‘s house stood a few doors down from ours, but no matter what, she told me she would always be within shouting distance. If I or Mama got in trouble, she said, we only had to cry out her name and she would come running. During the summer months, most everyone lazed around outside on their porch, and if a girl remained quiet, she could hear things. 9

―That bitch Rose done lost her mind,‖ Miss Honey said one day when she and some lady I didn‘t know were walking by. Miss Honey lived in the neighborhood and would giggle up in Mama‘s face and talk about her behind her back. This particular time was a few months before Mama killed herself. I was sitting on the porch swing, reading Toni Morrison‘s The Bluest Eye, when I heard the women talking about my mama. My fourth grade teacher, Miss Kennedy, said I was smart enough to handle reading it even though I was just getting ready to go into the fifth grade. Some of the parts were hard to understand and a lot of the parts were hard to read, especially the parts where the daddy did bad things to Pecola, but I liked the way the words sounded on the page and on my lips when I read out loud. As I grew older, I would reread The Bluest Eye often, amazed at how much I didn‘t understand until some of the same things started happening to me. I put the book down on my belly and listened to Miss Honey and her friend. The shrubbery in our yard hid me from their sight. They slowed up in front of our house. I stayed quiet and didn‘t move. I didn‘t want them to know I was eavesdropping. ―Why you say Rose is crazy?‖ the woman asked. ―Girl, Sonny Boy works up at the Brown Hotel with her, and he say she sometimes be sitting off in a corner all by herself, chattering like one of them 10

African monkeys off Tarzan. Crazy. Just crazy as hell. And you see how she done let herself go? Girl, Rose use to be the shit. Now she look like shit,‖ Miss Honey said as they both laughed all the way down the street. I wanted to say something to Miss Honey, but I didn‘t. What exactly could a ten year old girl say to a couple of grown women to convince them to believe her mother wasn‘t crazy, especially when she was afraid their words mig ht be just a little bit true? Some nights, Mama would be sad and scared, and she would have us hide in her bedroom closet, whispering so the bad people wouldn‘t hear us. I didn‘t know then the bad people were just imaginary voices in Mama‘s head. I trusted Mama they were out there, so I hid with her, panicked at every creak of the floor or car horn blowing on the street. ―You‘re all I got, Syl. Nobody else. Promise you won‘t ever leave Mama. You promise,‖ she‘d ask, holding me so tight I almost couldn‘t breathe. ―Yes, ma‘am. I promise,‖ I‘d whisper, tears rolling down my face. ―I won‘t go anywhere.‖ Some days she would be sitting at her dressing table and she would point to a picture of my daddy. I had never met him before. In the picture, he wore a Navy uniform and a huge smile on his face which caused little crinkles around his eyes. His shade of brown was the same as mine. Mama said I favored him around the mouth and eyes. When I was younger, I used to wonder why he didn‘t call me or 11

come see me. I never asked Mama though. Somehow I knew it would make her sad. Shortly after my eighth birthday, Mama told me why he never called or came by to see us. Mama sang at a club called Jazzy‘s Place over on Hill Street before I was born. Daddy was visiting a friend while on leave from the Navy when they met on the 4th of July in 1967 – a Tuesday night. Mama said she would never forget one little detail of the night she met my daddy. ―He was so fine – your daddy. Dark chocolate,‖ she said, hugging me tight. ―I was singing a Billy Holiday song that night. Probably ‗I‘ll Be Around.‘ Hank and I made eyes all night, even while I sang. He had a little too much to drink. He wasn‘t a drinking man so liqueur hit him hard, I‘m telling you. He came home with me and well, we spent seven days together. He told me he had to go down home to Alabama and take care of business, but he would come back. He said he wasn‘t happy with her – his wife, I mean. He was getting out of the Navy and he wanted a new beginning, he said.‖ By this time, Mama was good and drunk. Her words were slurred and she cried huge tears. ―He lied, Syl,‖ she said, pulling me tighter into her arms. I squirmed a little. I could hardly breathe with Mama holding me so tight. ―He went back down there to her and stayed. I had his work phone number. I still do, in case of an emergency, you know, but I‘ve never called him about you. I mean, sometimes I call, just to 12

hear his voice, but I never say anything. In all these years, he doesn‘t know it‘s me on the other side of the phone line. He doesn‘t even know,‖ she said. I lay there with her until she stopped crying and went to sleep. The next day, she came to me and apologized. ―Sylvia, your daddy is somebody you can be proud of, honey. He owns his own business. Your daddy is a high-class Black man. Even though I never told him we had made you, I know he would love you. How could he help himself? But you‘re mine, Sylvia. I kept you all for myself because you‘re the best, Sylvia—the best of him and me.‖ I wanted to ask her if I could call and listen to his voice too, but I didn‘t. As much as I wanted to, I didn‘t even ask. Even though I was young, I knew it wouldn‘t make things better. Plus, Mama said it and I knew; I was all she had. I couldn‘t ever let her know I wanted more than her. But sometimes, when things were really bad, I thought to myself it would be nice if he could come and see about us. Take us away to the east side of Louisville where everyone was happy. But, instead, I just stayed afraid – worried Crazy would one day come and take Mama away for good, and I guess, in the end, it did. While at school, I couldn‘t focus on my lesson because I couldn‘t stop thinking about Mama. I still read a lot, but I wasn‘t a straight A student anymore by the time I entered into the fourth grade. Lots of times I didn‘t have my homework, and Miss Kennedy, my teacher, would be cross with me because she 13

said I was one of the smartest children in the class, but I didn‘t seem to apply myself. She would threaten to have a meeting with Mama. She never did though. There were so many of us kids in her class I guess she must have forgotten or just didn‘t have time. I would always tell her sorry and I would do better. I didn‘t know how to tell her my Mama was sometimes sick and I had to see about her instead of doing my homework. I didn‘t tell her sometimes my Mama would be passed out drunk on the floor and I had to help her bathe and get into the bed. And I sure didn‘t tell her that sometimes I would come home and Mama would be hiding in her bedroom closet, talking to the voices in her head, afraid of everything – even me. But I didn‘t tell anyone anything about the turmoil going on in my home. The fear of social services taking me away terrified me. Mama had told me social workers sometimes would take kids from their parent if the parent wasn‘t able to take care of them. Mama ended up in the system because she had no one to take care of her. Her Mama fell sick with cancer and died, and there wasn‘t anyone around to take care of Mama so she had to go live at the Colored Orphan and Industrial Home in Lexington, KY. I didn‘t want to be an orphan, so I didn‘t tell anyone how bad things really were at home. Instead, I learned to be quiet. My quiet nature is why the kids at school didn‘t like me. I was real shy and easy to scare back then. I didn‘t have any friends 14

except for Miss Cora, and just like I said before, she didn‘t really count because she was a grownup. By the time I made it to my fourth grade year, I didn‘t like going to school anymore. I never had any little girl friends, and I considered myself to be stupid and ugly not to mention all of the kids were terrible towards me. They would steal my lunch and push me down to the ground. Michael Martin was the worst. He was supposed to be in the sixth grade but they held him back twice. One time he tried to push up on me when he and I were alone in the classroom. His thing was hard. I didn‘t know what ―a hard thing‖ meant back then, but I knew it felt nasty. I kicked him down there and ran. After I kicked him, he became even uglier towards me. Every chance he got, he tried to trip me or yell something out in front of the other kids to embarrass me. One time he threatened to pee pee on me but I took off running and he never mentioned it again. But he sure didn‘t stop teasing me. Those kids put me through my own private war. Just like the soldiers who fought over in Vietnam. Those kids would say such nasty things to me—things most people couldn‘t even imagine saying to another human being. At times, if I‘d had a gun, I think I would have thought about killing myself too. ―My mama say you a bastard chile, Sylvia Butler. Mama says you ain‘t got no daddy,‖ Michael Martin said real loud during recess one day after I kicked him down there again. Like a bunch of crabs in a bucket, the other kids rushed to 15

surround us and see another crab get squashed. All of them either had scowls or huge grins on their faces. ―She say your Mama ain‘t foolin nobody givin you your so-called daddy‘s last name. Mama say your Mama probably don‘t even know your daddy‘s name.‖ ―And her Mama‘s crazy,‖ Patience Floyd sang in a cruel melody. She was the prettiest girl at school, so whenever she would pick on someone, everybody else would join in with her. ―Sylvia‘s mama is crazy. Sylvia‘s mama is crazy.‖ All of the other kids laughed and sang right along with her. ―Sylvia‘s mama is crazy. Sylvia‘s mama is crazy.‖ I didn‘t say anything. I just pushed through them, taking the slaps and punches they gave me without lifting my hand to them at all. I didn‘t cry either. I knew Mama was different, but I didn‘t want to believe she was crazy. To believe she was crazy was more than my heart could have stood. As far as I was concerned, Mama was just sadder than most mamas. At the time, I didn‘t want to even imagine Mama being anything other than normal. To believe she was really crazy would have made me even more afraid than I already was. So for the most part, I pretended like …just like when we pretended like we were Dorothy and Glenda the Good Witch…Mama was normal. I would try to stay close by Miss Kennedy during recess and P.E., but most times she would be talking with the other teachers and would shoo me away. I would just go somewhere and try to make myself small. Stairwells and jani tors‘ 16

closets were good places to disappear into. I decided the only friends I needed were Miss Cora, Uncle Ray, and Mama, of course. Uncle Ray was an orphan like Mama. She said Uncle Ray took care of her at the Orphanage. ―Ray‘s always been a bad son of a gun. Nobody messed with me when Ray was around,‖ she told me once. Uncle Ray repaired cars and sold a little marijuana on the side after the Ford Factory laid him off from work. He also had a few other guys who worked for him in the marijuana business. Mama didn‘t like the fact Uncle Ray pushed dope, as she put it, but he told her there wasn‘t anything else out there for him to do. ―I ain‘t even got a damn high school diploma, Rose. And what with them two times I went to jail, well, who gone hire me?‖ h e snapped at her one day when we were at the Dairy Queen and some fellows came up to the car to buy some marijuana from Uncle Ray. Uncle Ray hopped out of his car and went over to where they were parked. When he returned, Mama told him he needed to stop contributing to the downfall of the black race. Mama stopped saying Negro after she read The Autobiography of Malcolm X and started going down to the temple every now and then. She said she would always be a Baptist, but she also thought sometimes those black Muslims made sense.


―Just because you‗re having some hard times, doesn‘t mean you can‘t still keep trying to better yourself, Ray,‖ she said. ―Better myself? Shiiittt,‖ he said. ―Rose, the one good job I had, they let me go from it. And you want to know why? Cause when the white boys came back from ‗Nam, they wanted to make sure the best jobs were sitting around waiting for them. Don‘t be quoting me none of that Black Power bullshit. The only color with power is green, baby.‖ Sometimes he would stay at our house. He had a place of his own, mainly because Mama said he couldn‘t move in with us. She said he was just a friend. He wanted to fix up our house but Mama wouldn‘t ever let him. One time he fixed one of the cracked windows and she went outside, picked up a brick and threw it through the window. ―Rose, you is one crazy bitch,‖ he yelled. ―And don‘t you forget it,‖ she yelled right back at him. Movies and meals were just about all she‘d allow him to do for us. ―I‘m not trying to have Ray up in my business,‖ she‘d tell me every time money would get tight and I would suggest we ask Uncle Ray for help. ―I‘d rather ask the devil first. Mixing business with pleasure is not good, Sylvia. Remember my words. Black men always want you beholding to them, just like the government. Well, I‘m not going on anyone‘s dole, not Uncle Sam‘s and certainly not Ray‘s. ‖ 18

I would tell her I understood, but I didn‘t. Uncle Ray loved us and we loved Uncle Ray and most important, Uncle Ray was the closest I figured I would ever come to having a daddy, and he actually wanted to be my daddy. Up until he died, I really thought it might happen and he, Mama, and I would be a family. The only thing in the world I ever really wanted.


Synopsis 1978. The year I turned ten and the year my mama killed herself. She was thirtyfive, and dying is the last thing that should have been on her mind. After the death of her mother, Sylvia Butler's father, a man she knows only from an old photo, takes her from Louisville, Kentucky to Ozark, Alabama to live with his family. But his wife resents everything about this intruder, from her out-ofwedlock conception to her dark skin and nappy hair. When the wife's younger brother Charles returns from Vietnam, Sylvia thinks she has found a friend and confidante, only to be hurt again, but this time, in a manner she never could have imagined. Set under the backdrop of the Deep South in the 1970s and 80s, this coming of age story of redemption and grace follows Sylvia in her journey from awkward girl to confident, young woman, at last standing on her own. About the Author Angela Jackson-Brown is an English Professor at Ball State University in Muncie, IN. She graduated from Troy University in Troy, AL (B.S. in Business Administration); Auburn University in Auburn, AL (M.A. in English); and Spalding University in Louisville, KY (MFA in Creative Writing). Her work has appeared in numerous literary journals, and her short story, ―Something in the Wash‖ was awarded the 2009 fiction prize by New Southerner Literary Magazine and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in Fiction. PRE-ORDER Information


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