Momma intended to teach Bailey and me to use the paths of life that she and her generation and all the Negroes gone before had found, and found to be safe ones. She didn’t cotton to the idea that whitefolks could be talked to at all without risking one’s life. And certainly they couldn’t be spoken to insolently. In fact, even in their absence they could not be spoken of too harshly unless we used the sobriquet “They.”
Stamps, Arkansas, was Chitlin’ Switch, Georgia; Hang ‘Em High, Alabama; Don’t Let the Sun set on You Here, N*****, Mississippi; or any other name just as descriptive.
One Christmas we received gifts from our mother and father, who lived separately in a heaven called California, where we were told they could have all the oranges they could eat. And the sun shone all the time. I was sure that wasn’t so. I couldn’t believe that our mother would laugh and eat oranges in the sunshine without her children. Until that Christmas when we received the gifts I had been confident that they were both dead.
The gifts opened the door to questions that neither of us wanted to ask. Why did they send us away? And What did we do so wrong? So Wrong? Why, at three and four, did we have tags put on our arms to be sent by train alone from Long Beach, California, to Stamps, Arkansas, with only the porter to look after us?
“How are you going to feel seeing your mother? Going to be happy?” he was asking Bailey, but it penetrated the foam I had packed around my senses. Were we going to see Her? I thought we were going to California. I was suddenly terrified. Suppose she laughed at us the way he did? What if she had other children now, whom she kept with her?