“I was black long before I was a writer,” jokes novelist Anthony Grooms. He joins acclaimed African American novelists Ravi Howard and Dedra Johnson as they talk of everything from choosing their stories to marketing their work. Gene Edwards hosts.
“For me,” says novelist Ravi Howard, “my race or my culture is very much a foundation.” The award-winning author of Like Trees, Walking adds, “But from there, black writers can branch into any genre. “
“Black writers aren’t just protest writers and social realists anymore,” adds Anthony Grooms, another novelist at the Writers’ roundtable. “They can write anything they want.”
Their comments come in response to a question from Dedra Johnson, also a novelist and the third guest. She wondered if African American writers have a new way of looking at themselves.
Gene Edwards hosts this fascinating hour of conversation with three contemporary African American authors. Ravi Howard won the Hurston Wright Award for Like Trees, Walking, the story of the last lynching in Alabama. Anthony Grooms’ novel Bombingham, set in Birmingham in the early 1960s, won the Lillian Smith Prize for Fiction. And Dedra Johnson was a finalist for the 2006 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Award for Sandrine’s Letter to Tomorrow, set in New Orleans.
In addition to being African American, these authors have much in common. They’re southern; they have protagonists who come of age; and they have turned to their lives as sources for their stories. “I knew many Sandrines growing up in my neighborhood,” remembers Johnson. “It was also based on some things I had heard about adults just not taking care of children.”
Grooms married into a large Alabama family. “I heard stories about the time of the civil rights movement,” he relates, “told in the vernacular of people who had experienced it. And my wife told me stories, too.”
Howard’s story happened in a place where he, too, had family—Mobile. “I had a very different relationship with the town than the people who lived during this episode, and I think that might be true for a lot of people of my generation.” He continues, “I just wanted to explore something that happened before I was really at an age where I could comprehend it.”
“Are you African American writers or are you southern writers,” asks host Gene Edwards. “Or have we gotten to the place where you don’t have to place yourself anymore?” “You’re placed by others, and that’s a reality you have to deal with even if you want to say ‘I am just a writer. I am simply human,’” Johnson responds. “I certainly see myself as an African American writer. Whether I write solely about the African American experience is up to me. It’s a choice, not an obligation.”
Then she continues. “I understand why there’s all this placement and why there’s the African American section, though I think what that kind of says to people is ‘Well, this is that black stuff over here. Don’t worry about that. You’ve got the rest of the store.’”
“I don’t strongly object to the idea of having an African American novel section,” counters Grooms. “It does create, I think, a certain focus on that particular cultural entity. I think it’s a good marketing strategy and southern writers have been doing it for a long time.”
“I think that sometimes the shelf space becomes very limited,” Howard expands. “We might be mixed in with everything that is classic, everything that is contemporary. So for those of us who might have a first or second book out, we might not have as much play as we want.”
And when it comes to writing about race, Howard cites Harper Lee, Eudora Welty, and William Faulkner as “southern white writers who’ve taken up race in their work. I think there are so many other writers who might want to take that up in their conversation but might also want to write other things. So I think it’s wonderful to see that kind of mix.”
Bombingham, Free Press, New York, 2001.
Trouble No More, La Questa Press, 1995, Kennesaw State University Press, Kennesaw, 2006.
Ice Poems, Grooms, Anthony, Atlanta, 1988.
Like Trees, Walking, Amistad, New York, 2007.
Sandrine’s Letter to Tomorrow, Ig Publishing, Brooklyn, 2008.
In her own words, here is Dedra Johnson's Book Notesessay for her novel, “Sandrine's Letter to Tomorrow.
An interview with Author Dedra Johnson
“Lucky” This short story was originally published in Bridge Magazine (Chicago, IL), Fall/Winter 2002. ©Dedra Johnson, 2002
Civil Rights Movement
Birmingham in the Civil Rights Movement
Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi
Passing as white
Click here for a complete list of teaching resources based on this episode.
Web sites for African American Literature
Civil Rights Movement lesson plans, teacher guides and more
Melba Pattillo and eight other teenagers became the first African-American students to attend Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas
Excerpt from “Bombingham” by Anthony Grooms
MAKE. A WISH on it,” Lamar said.
“You can’t,” I said. “You wish upon shooting stars—meteors—not comets. Besides, it’s all superstition.
Lamar had spotted the comet first. I had refused to look, knowing for sure that he would say “April fools” the moment I glanced up, but he gesticulated with such sincerity that I risked a look and saw the faint streak above the eastern horizon. We had met at Center Street School to assemble and deliver the Birmingham Herald. The morning was clear and warm enough that we were comfortable in our light jackets. Above us, the stars glittered, and we were trying to place them in constellations when Lamar saw the comet.
He gave me a look that dismissed my opinion. He closed his eyes tightly.
“What did you wish for?” I asked.
“I’m not telling since it’s superstition.”
“Don’t tell then.” I went back to rolling the papers, but secretly I had made a wish, too. Like so many boys our age, I wanted to be an astronaut.
While we rolled and banded the papers, Lamar kept up an entertaining chatter about the comet. At first he said it was the Christmas star come a little late—or maybe it was a NASA experiment, some kind of new rocket that was in orbit around the Earth— “Or a Russian rocket,” I interjected.
Lamar considered and dismissed the thought. “If it was a Russian rocket, we would have destroyed it by now. If that’s man-made, it’s American. Waltie, you know what? One day, we are going to fly up there, too. You wait and see. It doesn’t matter if you’re colored. My mama said if they fly monkeys up there, they can—you remember the big cake?” I remembered because we had made such a to-do about it. As a part of the celebration for John Glenn’s return, he was presented with a giant cake, as tall as a person, in the flask shape of Friendship7.Lamar had talked for hours about how it must have tasted and how he wished he could have gotten a piece of it. Then my father said that probably no Negro in the country had gotten to taste it. A Negro might have helped to bake it, but he didn’t get to taste it. Offhand though it was, the remark resonated with Lamar and me. If no Negro could even taste the cake, how much more difficult would it be for a Negro to become an astronaut? The realization didn’t discourage us. We decided we would be the first Negroes on the moon.
“But, oh—it couldn’t be—but, noooo—a flying saucer.” Lamar mocked fear. “Suppose it was coming to take the Earth away from white people and to give it to the colored so we could run things for a while.”
“That,” I said, using my father’s phrase, “is highly unscientific.”
AS WITH MOST of our ventures, getting a paper route had been Lamar’s idea. He had heard that the regular route boy, a teenager, had taken a job at TCI, Tennessee Coal and Iron, the largest of Birmingham’s steel mills. “That’s a mighty rough place for a teenager,” my father bad said when I told him why the route had opened up. Lamar knew the teenager since they both lived in Loveman’s Village, and he assured my father that the boy was “as big as a man.” He had gotten a girl “you, know’ —as Lamar put it—so he needed to quit school and take the higher-paving job so he could meet his responsibility. “What a shame,” my father said noncommitted and fiddled with an album cover. It had been a Sunday afternoon, after church, and my father was in the living room listening to jazz. His feet were propped on an ottoman and crossed at the ankles. He soaked in the opening bars of Nat “King” Cole’s “Unforgettable.” It was going to he a romantic afternoon. Already his breath was sweet with bourbon. Soon he would he grabbing my mother around the waist and making her dance in his imaginary jazz room. He deterred my request to my mother, who was in the kitchen basting a pot roast. She was not easy to convince. She said that she did not want me riding around Birmingham at the crack of dawn, especially with the KKK running loose. Recently a store on the periphery of the neighborhood had been blown up, and black people blamed it on the KKK or the police, if they made that distinction.
“Well,” my father said lazily from the entrance to the kitchen, “when aren’t the KKK running loose? We wouldn’t cross the street if we worried all day about the KKK.”
“You’d better worry,” ,Mother snapped.
ROLLING THE PAPERS, Lamar and I took only the slightest notice of the headlines a bus strike was threatened to begin that day. Later I learned that there were other matters afoot, matters in which we children would soon find ourselves at the very center. However, I did notice one small ad. It featured the face of a big-jowled, bespeckled white man, Bull Connor, who was the city’s public safety commissioner, in charge of the police and firemen. To us children he was the boogeyman. I had heard my great uncle, Uncle Reed, rail against him. He said Bull Connor was a grand dragon in the Ku Klux Klan and his responsibility for public safety meant keeping the public “safe from Negroes.” He accused Connor of having lynched colored men in his jails. He said Connor not only stood by while colored people’s houses burned, but he even ordered his firemen to burn the houses.
I probably wouldn’t have noticed the ad, busy as I was glancing at the comet before the sunrise washed it out, but the ad was repeated throughout the paper. Everywhere a reader turned in the paper, he came face to face with the pip-eyed Bull Connor. I pointed out the ad to Lamar, who made a sour face when he saw it. We held the paper in the light coming from inside the school. The ad complained about an editor of an Atlanta newspaper, and said that the “quisling Ralph McGill, who had integrated Atlanta” was “brainwashing you.” The “you,” followed by an exclamation point, was further defined as “the people of Birmingham.” Even then, we realized that “you” did not include us—nor did the phrase “people of Birmingham.” Lamar laughed at the banner at the foot of the front page that read, “Your vote could decide the outcome of tomorrow’s election.”
I wondered aloud what “quisling” meant, and Lamar answered without missing a beat that it meant “midget.” He had learned the word in Mrs. Griffin’s spelling bee, he said. I was not a speller, and did not participate in the competitions. “Yes, you see, this Ralph guy is a midget and if there’s anything Bull Connor hates worse than colored, it’s midgets.”
“Why would he call the guy a midget in the newspaper?”
“He didn’t call him a ‘midget,’ he called him a ‘quisling,’ which is a bad word for midget. It’s a fighting word.”
I took a deep breath and put an armful of papers in my bicycle rack. When I turned back to Lamar, I saw him struggling to keep a straight face. “You a lie.”
“A-pril fools!” He rolled on the pavement laughing, and pointing at me as I coolly gathered more papers. I knew that this would be just the first of Lamar’s pranks. At every chance, right up until a bedtime telephone call, he would try to fool me. Looking back on it, I’m ashamed to admit that he was too often successful. I was not naive in those days, nor particularly gullible, but I did have a wide-eyed openness to things, especially things wondrous. Lamar played my curiosity: Mrs. Griffin was wearing a wig; Joe Brown had a pet monkey; Arlene Spencer’s father was decapitated in a car wreck; Mr. Edwards, the vice principal, found a rattler by the swing set. I knew I shouldn’t have believed him, but I wanted to. I studied Mrs. Griffin’s hairline for some clue of a skull cap; asked the hulking Joe if I could play with his monkey; dipped my head in sympathy and morbid fascination every time Arlene passed me in the hail; and sneaked out to the swing set to look for the four-foot diamond back with its crushed head and six-inch rattle.
With our route marked out on a paper, we set off on our bikes through the neighborhood. We both had Sears Flyers, simple three-speeds, and both geared to the hilt with handlebar tassels, front baskets, and trumpet-shaped horns. Lamar took one side of the street, and I the other, and we paced each other. This arrangement took us a few minutes longer than dividing the route, but it suited Lamar to a tee. He loved being able to talk as we flung the papers toward the door stoops, or slipped them into paper boxes that some of our clients had affixed to their mailbox posts. Though there were a good mix of professions from doctors and lawyers to factory workers, the most common profession in Tittusville was schoolteacher. Next door to where I stayed on Tenth Avenue were the Jeterses, both retired from teaching. Across the street was Mrs. Rucker who taught at Center Street. Her reputation for surliness and hard work made us grateful she was not our teacher. Next to her, the Dobsons—he, a factory worker and she, a high school teacher; and, across from them, the Mannings, another teaching couple. My father, too, was a teacher. He taught science at Ullman High School. He could teach any branch of science and so was called on to teach the ninth grade general courses, but his specialty was biology. Father had studied a year at Meharry Medical College, the only medical college for Negroes in the country, and so he garnered great respect from his students and fellow teachers. He had dropped out of college in order to support his family; I was well on the way by the time my parents married. If my father regretted leaving medical school, he never said it.
Though it was just at the other end of Center Street, Loveman’s Village was across busy Sixth Avenue from Tittusville. It was a complex made of rows of barrackslike brick buildings, two units per building, each marked with a concrete stoop in front and back. A narrow lane named for a president separated each row. Lamar lived on Wilson Way.
When I first made friends with Lamar, in the first grade, my mother wouldn’t allow me to go to Loveman’s Village. She said that the projects were dangerous. Too many drunks. Too many knife fights. After a year of Lamar visiting our house, she relinquished. Nothing ever happened to me at Loveman’s Village. In those days, it was much like any other black neighborhood in Birmingham, though poorer than most. Sure, there were the drunks, and dope-heads, and a heroin addict or two, but all together they weren’t so mean. If I went quickly by the corners where they congregated, they hardly noticed me.
Mother Thompson lived next door to Lamar. A wiry but grandmotherly woman, she was active in Reverend Shuttlesworth’s church. Shuttlesworth was Birmingham’s most outspoken civil rights activist. Mother Thompson dared to advertise the activism byplacing posters on her front door, notifying people about mass meetings of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. As children we paid little attention to the posters or to the dozens of pamphlets we found at the bottom of the rank, damp garbage cans in her backyard.
One afternoon, the week before we started our paper route, Lamar’s mother, Mrs. Burrell, and Mother Thompson had a confrontation that focused our attention on the civil rights movement. Lamar, Josie—my sister—and I were playing on the back stoop with a microscope Lamar had gotten for Christmas. Since it was a Wednesday, Mrs. Burrell’s day off from domestic work, she was very dolled up. She wore a bright blue dress that pinched her waist and flared out below her hips. Her face waspowdered and rouged and brightened with lipstick and she was holding her hands, wrist limp, in front of her and shaking them to dry her nails.
Mother Thompson greeted Mrs. Burrell with an approving grunt. “You looking sharp, gal. You must got a beau on the string tonight.”
“Naw, Mother,” Mrs. Burrell chuckled and dipped her head in an instant of mock embarrassment, “it ain’t nothing like that. Just a friend.”
“Must he a mighty good friend.” Mother Thompson threw out wastewater from a pan into her square of lawn, and put the free hand on her hips. “Y’all young girls can…” she made a grinding motion with her hips, not meant to he witnessed by the children, though we were only a few feet away. I caught a glance of her, hut did not look up. “Y’all be wheeling them in!”
Mrs. Burrell protested by waving both hands, but she smiled in a way to show her pleasure at the compliment.
“I’m too old for that stuff, myself,” Mother Thompson went on. “Naw, Mr. Thompson was one too many for me!” she said of her long-dead husband. “I only got two somebodies now, me and the Lord. Any man-fishing I he doing now, I be doing for the Lord.” Then she turned serious. “There’s fixing to be another mass meeting, now, Mrs. Burrell, and I want to extend an invite to you. Before you say no, I want you to think about what ‘~ e trying to do. You know, this time we got Reverend King coming in, and it’s going to be different—”
“Now, now, Mother, you know I don’t take no stock in all that mess.”
Mother Thompson’s silence was abrupt, and caused us children to look up. She had both hands on her hips, the pan dangling from one. “I sure get tired of triflin’, Mrs. Burrell. This ain’t no mess. This is serious business—and it’s the Lord’s work, too.”
Mrs. Burrell forgot about her nails, put her hands on her hips, too, and dipped a hip, to boot. “It might be the Lord’s work, but it’s still a mess. Look around front, Miss Thompson. Now, I don’t mean no disrespect—I was raised to respect—but when you got all them posters and signs tacked all over your front door, what am I supposed to think? That reflects on us all. Building look like a bulletin board! Now, I don’t care what you do—but you got to keep it inside.”
Mother Thompson took a step backward, stopped, and wagged her finger. “You better care what I do. I’m trying to help you. You got a child to raise. You ought to be doing it, too!”
Mrs. Burrell turned her profile to Mrs. Thompson. The heat had passed. “I know that. I just can’t do everything. I’m doing the best I can with what I got.”
“Girl, you just need to get some more-——and I mean get, ‘cause Mr. Charlie and Miss Ann ain’t giving.” Mother Thompson went in and slammed the door behind her.
Mrs. Burrell remembered her nails, blew on them, looked a moment at Lamar. “She ain’t going do nothing but get us blowed up.” She went in and let her screen door slam, too.
When Mrs. Burrell mentioned bombing, Josie slipped her hand inside of mine and squeezed. She was nine; we liked to say nine going on ninety-nine. With her head full of thin, well-greased plaits, our mother’s meticulous handiwork, she looked quite the little girl, but our Grandmother Pic sometimes referred to her as “an old soul.” I took my hand away and patted her on the back and took my turn looking in the microscope.
The slide was simply labeled “blood.” Lamar wondered if itcould be human blood. I didn’t think so. I said it was against the law to sell human blood.
“Not if it’s in the interest of science.” Lamar cocked his head confidently. “Besides, it ain’t even a whole drop of blood. It’s not enough to hurt anybody.”
“That’s easy to say, if it’s not your blood,” Josie said.
“I think they took it from animals,” I said. “Probably from a cow. Probably they got it from the slaughterhouse. Besides, if a person gave enough blood for all the microscopes Sears sold in one year, it would bleed him to death.”
Josie took her turn peering into the microscope. “It’s pretty,” she said. “Looks like the windows at a church.”
“Does not,” Lamar said and took his second look. “Looks like old lady Thompson’s blood to me.”
“Be quiet,” Josie said.
“I’ll sell Sears plenty of blood after I kick her ass.”
I laughed, but Josie stood up. “That’s mean.”
Just then Mrs. Burrell called Lamar from inside the screen door. Her tone was scolding. He went in and a minute later came out and told us we had to go home.
THE PAPER ROUTE ended at Sixth Avenue, the thoroughfare between Tittusville and Loveman’s Village and downtown. A few blocks from where the route ended was the burned-out shell of Williams’s store, the neighborhood grocery that had been bombed a few weeks earlier. We had not heard the blast, only heard about it the next morning when Mr. Jeters interrupted our Sunday breakfast. “Th-Th-They bombing in T-Tittusville, now,” he said. We children called him “Jittery Jeters” because of his stutter. True to his nature, my father invited Mr. Jeters to have a seat. If the news excited my father, he never showed it.
“Was anyone hurt?” my mother asked.
“J-just ruined the store.”
“Now, that’s a shame,” Father offered. “And just on the outskirts of Tittusville. I didn’t know Williams was doing anything political. Is he a race man?” “You don’t have to be a race man,” Mother interjected sharply, “you just have to be colored.”
After church, we took a family outing to survey the damage at the store. Mother wouldn’t let us get out of the car, so we drove around the block slowly, just one of several carloads of sightseers, black and white.
Already, my head was filled with images of bombings and lynchings from the stories I heard my uncles tell at family gatherings. Later, I would realize that those stories, as terrifying and brutal as I imagined them, could never describe real violence. Violence has odors, both loud and subtle as the heightened senses pick them out. The stories my uncles told about lynchings always happened at a great distance—in Tuscaloosa or in Albertville, or “over in Georgia”—but never in Birmingham. Birmingham’s stories were about bombings, but never in Tittusville, until the store bombing. It seemed the Birmingham Klan was too sophisticated to toss a rope over a tree limb. It preferred the blast and rumble of dynamite, or the flash of a gasoline bomb—so much so that Fountain Heights on the north side of the city, a white neighborhood where blacks were beginning to buy houses, had so many bombings and fires it was called Dynamite Hill. Bombings were so common that black people had nicknamed the city “Bombingham.”
But on that beautiful April Fools’ morning, with the wind whistling around my ears as I headed home from my first delivery, my first real job, what news those papers contained—the affairs of adults—were far from my mind. 1 was, for a moment, in a suspended time. Freewheeling down Center Street hill toward home, I could think of nothing hut wonder in the world.
Excerpted from “Bombingham” by Anthony Grooms. Copyright © 2001 by Anthony Grooms. Excerpted by permission of Anthony Grooms. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing.
Excerpt from “Like Trees, Walking” by Ravi Howard
When the phone rang so early in the morning, it oftentimes meant somebody was dead. An elderly person had passed in the night. A Friday night traffic fatality. The families of deceased would set about the task of notifying family and friends, and somewhere among the sad litany of phone calls, they dialed our number.
As a child, I would answer the phone in the family room during my morning cartoons. Our parents had instructed us on the phone etiquette they expected at all times, especially when the caller could be a grieving family member. Turn down the television or radio. Speak clearly and mannerly. It had become a conditioned response, because there was no telling who was on the other end.
A second ring.
The sound echoed through the green plastic casing of the rotary phone mounted next to the laminated list of emergency numbers, just below the calendar that carried our picture.
The phone rang once more.
Eventually these calls would be mine alone. I had always listened to the reassuring tone my father took: Earnest without condescension. Listening more than speaking. Choosing the right words and knowing exactly when to say them. The proper timber of the voice. By then I was a senior in high school, and I had worked more funerals than I cared to count. Had fielded just as many phone calls. Despite the preparation, I had not yet mastered the fortitude that my father exuded, the calm that his voice carried no matter who was the subject of the call.
"Nobody needs your grief on top of their own," he had said many times.
Just before the fourth ring, I answered.
"Deacon Residence. Roy speaking."
It was Sgt. Kincaid, whose voice was familiar from our church choir, the smooth tenor that would lead songs. Although he had that rock-steady tone expected of police officers, on that morning his voice was shaking.
"Roy, I - I need to speak to your daddy."
"Just a second, I'll get him -"
"Roy," my father said.
I had assumed I was the only one awake. As though he had heard his name being called in his sleep, my father stood behind me clad in a bathrobe and pajamas reaching for the phone. While he spoke to Sgt. Kincaid, I pretended not to listen while I sprayed the starch on my collar. Mr. Kincaid's voice spilled out of the phone, but the words were too distorted to make any sense of. As Daddy looked out the window, I tried to read his face but got nothing.
Out of habit, my father would run his fingers along the carvings in the gopher wood table while he reassured the person on the phone, but this time his hands were still. He said nothing. The only sounds I heard were the cryptic hum of Sgt. Kincaid, and the whisper of the iron making its steam, water droplets sizzling against the steel before they turned to vapor. I rested the iron, and pulled the left sleeve tight across the board.
"Is Paul all right?"
I heard my brother's name just as I reached for the iron. Instead of the plastic handle, my fingers touched the face, burning a red line clear across my palm. I swore in silence, waiting to find out what was happening.
"Where is he now?"
The toaster in the kitchen coughed up my slices, but my hunger was already gone. In its place came the resulting uneasiness of hearing my brother's name in the early morning phone calls that in our house only meant one thing. After a heavy silence, my father's fingers loosened, and he mouthed a Thank God as he collected himself.
"We'll be there in ten minutes," he said, just before he hung up the phone.
"We have to go see about your brother," he said.
"Michael Donald was lynched last night," he said. "Your brother found the body."
Excerpted from “Like Trees, Walking” by Ravi Howard. Copyright © 2007 by Ravi Howard. Excerpted by permission of Ravi Howard. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing.
Excerpt from “Sandrine’s Letter to Tomorrow” by Dedra Johnson
I finished A Wrinkle in Time and read it again. Mamalita would take me to the library every week but no one had mentioned it here, I hadn’t seen one on our way through town, and Yolanda, when I asked, looked so confused, like she didn’t know what the word “library” meant, I wanted to hit her. I was tired of Yolanda all day. It was more like babysitting than having a friend to play with and the babysitting just made me mad since I was only a year or so older and had no business watching her all day, like that’s why they brought me, not to see Mamalita or Dad.
In the downstairs closet behind the vacuum and broom I found some medical books, Dad’s, in a plastic milk crate. There was one old book from Mamalita’s house, brown, a little mildew-smelling, and I started reading it, my legs folded under me. It was a Little House on the Prairiebook I’d read twice already at Mamalita’s and I didn’t pay much attention to what it said; the books were simple-minded and boring, but it was better to have words in my head and eyes than nothing. I shoved the vacuum aside and slammed the broom against the back wall to sit on the books. The light bulb was yellow but bright enough to read by.
The door opened. Yolanda stood there wiggling her toes, carrying the Barbies by their hair. She saw the book and sucked her teeth, stood there another half-minute and sucked her teeth again. When I didn’t stop reading, she drifted away. I crossed my legs and leaned back on the cool wall. I could hear humming from the air conditioning and low-pitched shouting outside. Yolanda, out of my sight, said, “It’s Mike and some boys,” and walked past the closet door. I heard the deadbolt scrape open and saw light cut across the carpet. I expected to hear a ball hit or more shouting, but a car door closed, a motor revved and Yolanda called “Sandi!” I peeked around the closet door. In the bright bleached outside was a long convertible, white and chrome, and Yolanda sat on the passenger door, her bare feet dangling over the street. Mike leaned into the car, talking to the driver who looked a lot older than Mike. The driver, the collar of his white shirt wafting up when the wind got strong, had his arm draped over the car door. Yolanda waved both arms wildly.
I sat and closed the closet door. I still heard the motor. Then a woman yelled, doors slammed and the car drove away. The closet door jerked open and a woman with dark skin but gray eyes and white hair looked down at me, one hand on her hip. She smiled.
“And you’re in here reading a book,” she said, shaking her head just a little. “Come on out here. I’m Miss Augustine. I live right down the street in the pink townhouse. And you, Little Miss Hot Stuff,” she said to Yolanda, who she held tight by the wrist, “almost ended up in more trouble than you can even guess at.”
Miss Augustine’s head swiveled around as she looked the townhouse over. She looked in the refrigerator, still holding on to Yolanda who leaned as far away from her as she could. All we had was the heel parts of a loaf of bread, an almost empty jelly jar, one slice of ham that had gotten hard on one side, and an empty milk gallon. Philipa had said that morning she’d bring home food but I didn’t tell.
“You girls come with me,” she said. “We’ll have some lunch and you can help me in my yard.”
“We not supposed to leave the house,” Yolanda said with a smug grin.
Miss Augustine pulled Yolanda close to her face and said, “But you can sit in a car with boys three times your age from you don’t know where?” She smiled at me and offered her other hand. “Let’s go, girls. It’s already after two, you must be hungry. You can bring your book. What’s your name?”
“Sandi,” Yolanda said.
“Sandrine,” I said. “And she’s Yolanda.”
We walked past the yellow and teal-trimmed townhouses into the pink-trimmed one. Miss Augustine’s inside walls and even the rail on her staircase were cotton candy pink. I could still smell the bacon she must’ve fried for breakfast. Instead of a sofa, she had three big chairs and matching footstools; instead of a dining table she had a long wood table with two benches, like a polished picnic set. Glass shelves near the staircase had ceramic and glass things covering all the shelf space—fancy eggs, riots of color with lots of gold trim and on stands that looked like gold thimbles; little brown-skinned shepherds and shepherdesses; a few Virgin Marys and Jesuses, including a Black Virgin Mary; cats sleeping; a dog with a stick in his mouth. On the walls she had an old map of the United States, before Hawaii and Alaska, and a painting of a dim, drippy bayou. It was cool and quiet inside.
After she locked the door and put the key in her pocket, Miss Augustine let go of Yolanda who jumped away and rubbed her wrist. Miss Augustine told us to sit down at the picnic table and disappeared into the kitchenette. Yolanda stuck her tongue out at the wall Miss Augustine was behind. We heard pots clang onto the stove, water pouring.
“My girls’ll be home later today,” Miss Augustine said. “They go to Tougaloo.”
I hunched my shoulders and laughed into my hand at the name. “What’s a toogaloo?” I said to Yolanda who pouted her lips out like a frog and dropped her head on the table. I poked and poked and all she would do was sigh.
“Miss Augustine?” Yolanda’s head popped up and she screwed up her face to give me a mean look. “What’s a toogaloo?”
Yolanda folded her arms and turned away from me. “Mama’s gonna be real mad at you,” she said.
“I wasn’t the one sitting in a car with boys.”
“Mama’s not gonna care about that. This . . .“ She pointed to the table and nodded over and over, her big eyes staring at me.
Sizzles and pops came from the kitchen and soon we smelled frying chicken. “Shut up,” I said. I was hungry. No one had cooked for me since I left New Orleans. Philipa cooked only if Dad was home, awake and hungry, which had only happened at breakfast before we woke up. “Your mama doesn’t care what happens to us,” I said.
“Yes she does!”
Miss Augustine filled the table—potato salad, fried green tomatoes coated in flour and pepper, crispy fried chicken wings, white bread, sweet tea, green beans cooked with little chunks of ham. The tomatoes were peppery and tart; Yolanda spit hers out on her plate.
“You like that book? Little House on the Prairie?” Miss Augustine asked. She sat watching us eat.
“It’s the only one I can find. I finished Wrinkle in Time. I even read it again. Mamalita takes me to the library every week but . . . “Yolanda squinted at me and I stopped.
“I’ll ask your mother if I can take you by the library . . . I might even have some books ‘round here from my girls. It just you two and your mother?”
Yolanda kicked my knee and pressed her finger against her lips so hard they blanched under her finger. “Her mother and my dad,” I said.
“Oh.” Miss Augustine put another spoon of green beans on my plate. “They at work a lot, huh?” She talked in a light, sort of slow voice like a teacher.
“All the time,” I said. I stopped to finish chewing before I said, “The most we see of them is their dirty dishes. But I’m going to Mamalita’s when Dad gets—”
“You are not going to no Mamalita, she don’t want you and your mama don’t want you neither!”Yolanda shouted at me. Miss Augustine grabbed her arm and shook her a little.
“Your grandmama?” she said to me.
“Yes, ma’am.” I felt slack-mouthed full and set down my fork. I smiled at Miss Augustine so she’d know I really liked the food.
Miss Augustine took us around her townhouse to the garden she had in back, a rectangle of churned dirt full of tomato plants, collard greens, onion stalks going brown, basil plants growing all around the tomatoes, green and crookneck yellow squash vines, the squash longer than my hand. Miss Augustine asked Yolanda to pick the red tomatoes but Yolanda just stood there so Miss Augustine pushed her to her knees and stood over her until she started weeding. I got the tomatoes and cut the collards like Mamalita had shown me, down near the base so more would grow back. Miss Augustine said, “I’m getting you over here every week to help me,” and patted my arm. I smelled Mamalita’s house, fruit sugar and dust and lemon oil and biscuits. She snapped her fingers at Yolanda. “We going out in front and don’t you try nothing. Get to weeding those beds.”
The rose beds weeded and the spent heads cut ofi~ Miss Augustine sent us to her upstairs bathroom to clean up and when we came down she had set the table again with bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches, more tea, and a spoon of green beans next to each sandwich. Yolanda at first wouldn’t face the table and kept staring at the door, but by the time I’d finished half my sandwich, she was wolfing down her food, gobbling the sandwich in four bites and feeding the green beans onto her mouth one after the other until they were gone.
It was grayish outside, right before sundown. Miss Augustine held our hands and walked us back to our townhouse. She had us stand behind her. Philipa opened the door, Miss Augustine introduced herself and asked where the little girls were. “Upstairs,” Philipa said. “I’ve been home a hour and not heard a peep.”
Miss Augustine leaned back and folded her arms. “I have something for the bright one. Can you call her?”
“Bright smart or bright white?” Philipa said. My eyes burned and I wanted to jump out from behind Miss Augustine. Philipa yelled for us to come downstairs. Miss Augustine moved to stand behind us and when Philipa turned, her big smile went stiff and her eyes got icy-angry. She waddled over, her narrowed eyes looking at me, grabbed Yolanda’s arm and yanked her into the house. I jumped in before she could touch me. “What are you doing coming in my house to take my children?”
“That one,” Miss Augustine pointed at Yolanda, who hid all but her head behind Philipa and took on Philipa’s mean look, “was sitting in a car with four men from who knows where. Front door wide open. No food in the Frigidaire.” She talked to Philipa like she didn’t notice her tight voice or hot look. Miss Augustine patted me on the head. “Anytime you need some help, send them over. I’m retired and my time is my own. I got gardening to do all the time. And I got two girls down atTougaloo. Good babysitters. You knock on my door anytime,” she said to me with a smile.
After Miss Augustine left, Philipa pushed us up the stairs to our room and watched while we put on pajamas. “The next time you leave this house, don’t fucking come back,” she said. She turned out the light and slammed the door.
“Don’t come back?” I said.
“Shh. If she hears you, she’ll whip us ‘til tomorrow,” Yolanda said, eyes wide.
Right before I fell asleep, I thought that if Philipa told Mama I’d left the house without permission, Mama would make me come back before I saw Mamalita. “Do you think she’ll tell?” I said. Yolanda, eyes closed, folded her arms and turned her back to me.
Excerpted from “Sandrine’s Letter to Tomorrow” by Dedra Johnson. Copyright © 2008 by Dedra Johnson. Excerpted by permission of Dedra Johnson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing.
Producer: Edie Greene
Director: Rick Klein
Technical Director: Clark Lee
Cameras: Earnest Seals, Mike Koskie, John Dorman, Jeremy Burson
Floor Director: Glenroy Smith
Production Audio: John Busbice, Ron Carbo
CCU: Adam Chance
Videotape: Steve Downing
Lighting Director: Kenneth Sullivan
Production Supervisor: Paul Miller
Editor: Edie Greene
On-line Editor: Larry Uelmen
Editing Supervisor: Scott Colwell
Art Director: Karen Wing
Makeup: Audrey Fitzpatrick
Title Animation and Graphics: Frank Cocke
Audio Post Production: Taiwo Gayner
Closed Captioning: Keri Horn
Scenic Designers: Karen Wing, Jack Thomas, Frank Cocke, Kenneth Sullivan
Scenic Craftsman: Jack Thomas, Ray Green
Production Coordinator: Glenroy Smith
Publicity: Mari Irby, Randy King, Darrell Lee
Webmaster: Thomas Broadus
Host: Gene Edwards
Guests: Anthony Grooms, Ravi Howard, Dedra Johnson
Director of Productions: Darryl Moses
Director of Content: Jay Woods
Executive Producer: Rick Klein
Special Thanks to the Foundation for Public Broadcasting in Mississippi
Images of Eudora Welty and house used by permission of Eudora Welty House Museum and Mississippi Department of Archives and History. All rights reserved.
Created by Gene Edwards, John Evans
Copyright © MAET 2009