The Search for Family and Belonging

This was the third foster home I was going to and I’m used to packing up and leaving, but it still surprises me that there are always a few seconds, right after they tell you you’ve got to go, when my nose gets all runny and my throat gets all choky and my eyes get all sting-y.

This passage, in Chapter 1, describes Bud’s reaction after the caseworker tells him that he’s being sent to another foster home. Since joining the orphanage four years ago when his momma passed away, it has been a sort of waystation for him, in between being consigned, short-term, to foster care situations. The physical reaction Bud describes is a painful one, and he tells the reader that he doesn’t “know when it first happened, but it seems like my eyes don’t cry no more.” Perhaps Bud no longer cries because the system denies him that option. The caseworker makes it clear that he should be “cheerful, helpful, and grateful.” Later in the chapter, when Bud describes the contents of his suitcase, the reader gains an implicit understanding that this story is really about finding one’s family and a place to belong.

Maybe someone was trying to tell me something, what with me missing the train and the blue flyer floating back to me, maybe Deza Malone was right. Maybe I should stay here in Flint….Maybe it came floating right back to me because this Herman E. Calloway really was my father.

This passage, which appears in Chapter 8, marks an important turning point in the story. Bud has just faced the dilemma of whether to run after a blue flyer that escaped from his suitcase, or to catch up to the train Bugs was on heading west. Perhaps surprisingly, Bud goes after the flyer, and his friend Bugs remains on the train alone. Although he thought of Bugs as a brother, Bud chooses the hope of finding his real father over taking the train with Bugs. Bud makes a hopeful decision to return to Flint, closer to where he thinks home might be. Bud believes that continuing to look for Herman E. Calloway will be his best chance to find his family.

We’ve been hoping for eleven years that she’d send word or come home, and she finally has. Looks to me like she sent us the best word we’ve had in years.’ Miss Thomas smiled at me and I knew she was trying to say I was the word that my momma had sent to them.

This passage appears in Chapter 19, the book’s concluding chapter. It has just been revealed that Bud’s momma is Mr. C.’s daughter. Bud has come downstairs after seeing Mr. C. upstairs in his momma’s old bedroom, wracked with sorrow at the realization that his daughter is dead. In this scene, all of the questions Bud has had with about his family come to a resolution. Miss Thomas explains that no one knew where Bud’s momma had gone and that Mr. C. hadn’t even known that Bud existed. She tells Bud that Momma had run away to get out from under her father’s control. Miss Thomas’ words to Bud in this passage serve to communicate how important Bud is to them, and how much he belongs to their “family.” Bud, “the word” Momma sent, is truly home.

The Underlying Current of Race and Racism

Writ about their car in fancy letters it said, THERE’S NO PLACE LIKE AMERICA TODAY!

In Chapter 6, Bud is standing in the food line at the mission with his pretend father. A billboard stands high above the mission showing “a family of four rich white people sitting in a car driving somewhere.” The family seems to be mocking the beleaguered and hungry people standing below. The racial undercurrent that appears in the book rises to the surface in this scene. The family’s smiles and carefree demeanor stand as a blatant insult to the long line of hungry people below. Bud’s pretend father comments that the people in the billboard wouldn’t dare come down to the line and tell the truth. Though people of all races were negatively impacted by the economic devastation of the Great Depression, this scene presents a striking image representative of the deeply embedded racial inequality of the time.

Bud-not-Buddy, you don’t know how lucky you are I came through here, some of these Owosso folks used to have a sign hanging along here that said, and I’m going to clean up the language for you, it said, ‘To Our Negro Friends Who Are Passing Through, Kindly Don’t Let the Sun Set on Your Rear End in Owosso!’

In Chapter 10, Mr. Lewis (Lefty Lewis), seeing Bud walking along the side of the road in the middle of the night, has pulled over to help him. After a bit of back and forth between the two, with Bud determined not to return to Flint, Mr. Lewis takes Bud by the hand and tells Bud where they are—a town called Owosso, MI. The sign, which Mr. Lewis paraphrases for Bud, is striking evidence of the dark reality of racism, which is on blatant display throughout the country during this time period. Mr. Lewis admonishes Bud for disregarding the dangers of a Black person being out after dark. In fact, “seeing a young, brown-skinned boy walking along the road just outside of Owosso, Michigan, at two-thirty in the morning,” is precisely the reason Mr. Lewis stopped. Mr. Lewis’ motivation in pulling over is to safeguard Bud from the potential of racial violence.

Deed said, 'It’s the way of the world, Sleepy. It’s against the law for a Negro to own any property out where the Log Cabin is so Mr. C. put it in my name.' Eddie said, 'That, and a lot of times we get gigs playing polkas and waltzes and a lot of these white folks wouldn’t hire us if they knew we were a Negro band so Deed goes out and sets everything up.’

In Chapter 18, the band members are teasing their white piano player, Dirty Deed. Eddie tells Bud that Deed is in the band for “practical reasons” and that “we don’t hold his skin color against him, he can’t help that he was born that way.” The band members agree that Deed is good enough to play with Herman C. Calloway, but they explain to Bud that Mr. C., being Black, is unable to own property. He “owns” the Log Cabin because Dirty Deed has signed the deed. Mr. C.’s work-around is to always have a white member of the band. Prospective venues owned by white people would not hire a Black band, so they need a white go-between. As he grows up, Bud is learning to understand and navigate around the barriers he will find in a society that is characterized by racial inequality and prejudice.

The Unifying Nature of Economic Insecurity

They were all the colors you could think of, black, white and brown, but the fire made everyone look like they were different shades of orange. There were dark orange folks sitting next to medium orange folks sitting next to light orange folks.

This passage appears in Chapter 8, when Bud and Bugs have arrived at Flint’s version of Hooverville and are surveying the scene of people gathered around a large fire. The demographics of the group is representative of a large swath of society, cutting across racial and social lines. The man with a mouth organ further expresses the unifying nature of economic insecurity. He explains to the boys how hardship brings people together. He tells them, as they look around, that “all these people are just like you, they are tired, hungry and a little bit nervous about tomorrow.” To Bud, the people gathered around the fire, regardless of their race, all look the same, meaning they all share the same hardship. Racial and social differences were mainly put aside as diverse groups of people, united in their financial hardship during the Great Depression, helped and supported each other.

A union is like a family, it’s when a group of workers get together and try to make things better for themselves and their children.

This quote appears in Chapter 12. Lefty Lewis and Bud are on their way from Flint to Grand Rapids and have been pulled over. The policeman is purportedly stopping cars he doesn’t recognize due to rumors of labor unrest and calls for a strike. Lefty quickly tells Bud to hide the box of flyers that was sitting on the passenger seat under the seat. The cop, unable to find any contraband, lets them go. Bud wonders what a labor organizer is, and Mr. Lewis describes them as a group of people, like a family, who come together because of shared economic hardship. These workers join forces to protect each other’s jobs and secure their own family’s livelihoods. Bud is seeing more evidence of how financial struggles are bringing people together in ways that would not otherwise happen.

Take a look out the window, baby, there’s a depression going on. How many folks you see living like us, Negro or white? Not many. That man may have his faults, but he’s a struggler, I’m putting my hat in with him.

In this scene from Chapter 18, Dirty Deed responds to the other band members teasing him that he’s only in the band because he’s white. Deed doesn’t seem ruffled at all by this – for him, he sees the band as “the best gig in town” in a time when both Black and white folks are in crisis. Deed agrees that his whiteness got him the job and is essential to the survival of the band. But when Deed describes Calloway as “a struggler” and that he’s “putting his hat in with him,” Deed aligns himself with the Black members of the band, and portrays the poverty and financial insecurity of the time as crossing racial boundaries.