My father takes us to the barbershop near Hunter and Ashby streets, and I sit there no less beguiled by the candy-striped cylinder near the door than the life taking place outside the plate-glass window. That window is like a movie screen, and there is plenty going on in the Hunter Street movie I do not understand: the thick tangle of black overhead wires, along which trolley cars find their way from one part of the city to another; the women in stiletto heels and short skirts who flag down men in cars; people writing down numbers as they leave the liquor store. Men shout greetings and put-ons to one another across the street, or from as far as half a block away. Like a vaudeville joke. “Hey Leroy, man, who was that ugly-looking woman I saw you with the other night?” Leroy turns, recognizes the face, and says, “I don’t know, man. She was so ugly I didn’t get a good look at her. Mighta been yo’ wife.” “I ain’t got no wife,” says the first man, “so I know you wrong about that.” They both laugh a locker-room sort of laugh. That’s how it opens. Then, more heartfelt: “Ain’t seen you in a long time, man. How you been?” “Doin’ alright, man. You know how it is.”
Music plays from a car radio. A door opens on a restaurant, and different music spills into the street, adding another ring to the unfolding circus. I watch the men: young men in silk shirts and conked-up hair tied with rags; rich-looking older men wearing skinny mustaches, razor-sharp shark-skin suits with silk color-wheel handkerchiefs peeking from the breast pocket; and men in snap-brim fedoras, overcoats, expensive pointy-toe shoes called Cadillacs. Some of those men look quiet but dangerous. They suck toothpicks or smoke cigars. They cut their eyes this way and that. The words rackets, pimp, gambler whispered inside the barber shop as they go by.
Stephen and I are boys, and everyone around us is a man. Jerome Walker, who runs the barbershop with his brother, Leon, smokes a cigar. My father smokes his unfiltered Camels. Two men play checkers on a red-and-black board in the corner. Cotton balls of black hair—some the size of marbles, some the size of beads—surround the chairs, as one and then another of the grownups take their turn at being shaved, trimmed or shaped up.
The barber, whom we call Mr. Jerome, cranks the chair into a reclining position and drapes a warm towel on the man’s face. Then he lathers the man’s hairline. He pulls out a pearl-handled straight-razor and slaps it back and forth across a leather strap hanging near the chair. He puts two fingers on the man’s temple and, with the razor, slowly reshapes the outline of the man’s hair around his face from ear to ear, around the back of his neck and even across his forehead.
Stephen and I are mystified by the shape-up. We watch, mesmerized, as wooly-headed customers with ragged hairlines are made smooth, clean, presentable. Though we are too young for the razor, sometimes Mr. Jerome outlines the hair around our ears and temples, calling it a “shave.” Hot lather and the razor against your skin, the scratching sound that accompanies hair coming off beneath the blade, a sound like fingernails inching across sandpaper. A warm towel on your face, just like grown men getting a shave.
I love coming to the barbershop with my dad. I don’t know it yet, but this is where we participate in the ancient ritual of the knife, which our forebears knew in Africa. This is what’s left of the centuries-old circumcision ceremony, with Mr. Jerome, our barber, taking the place of the witch doctor, the shaman, the guide. The other men—elders—watching as we become one of them.
The room crackles with life like the sound of chicken hitting a hot skillet, the men laughing and talking freely. It’s similar to what I notice near the pool table in our basement. The camaraderie of men free of wives and white folk.
My father, a railroad man, is well-liked here. A railroad job is a good job (for a Negro)—Pullman porter, dining-car waiter, the Red Caps. So my father has some stature among his peers, and I can feel some of his stature coming through to me. The railroad and the post office, that’s where most of the black men we know go to work. Then there’s Lockheed Aerospace. For those who went to college, there’s teaching or selling real estate and insurance. Not much else a colored man can do—except go out on his own, start a business or a church. But these are risky. Up one minute, down the next. My father has steady work. He has steady money. He is well-liked in the barbershop. Some of the men who come here have known him since he was a boy.
His railroad job takes him to New York, New Orleans, Washington, D.C. He gets to see something of the world on his job, has a good wife, two fine boys. His friends call him Rosie. “Yes sir, two fine boys you got there, Rosie. Doin’ fine.” His stature coming through to me. My father well- liked, and the room full of men, and the best part is standing up afterwards, the sheet-like bib removed from your chest, the smell of cologne, the barber dusting you with talcum powder, then the handheld whisk broom moving briskly over your shoulders, back, pants—any place a stray hair might fall.
But you have to wait a long time before it’s your turn. There are no appointments. My dad just drops in. The glass door swings closed behind him. Hail fellow, well met. And we are in that world for the next few hours. Where the men laugh and talk and sometimes argue about things we do not fully understand. Willie Mays and Jackie Robinson. Sugar Ray and Jake LaMotta. What Tonto really knows. What the Tarzan movies say about the Negro race. Jokes about Cheetah, Tarzan’s pet chimpanzee, having more sense than some of the natives. The conversation turning to women, and Mr. Jerome saying, “Watch it now—the boys.” And I know this is a signal for something important we are not meant to hear. All this amid the casual crossing and uncrossing of legs. Ankles resting on kneecaps. Then feet planted ceremoniously on the floor, the trouser legs pulled up a bit at the knees, the shoes tapped squarely into place on the floor like some flashy new step by Sammy Davis Jr. A kind of sitting ritual dance. The snapping of a shoe-shine rag as the man with the shine box buffs a pair of Johnston-Murphys to a wet-like glaze.
That, my father says, is how he got his job on the railroad: shining shoes downtown, for white folks. One day, instead of rubbing his hand across my father’s hair for good luck and tossing him a tip, some white man asked if he’d like a job working on the trains. Later, my father would puzzle over that fateful moment. What had he done to merit this consideration? Carefully dusted the man’s jacket when he left the chair. Helped him with his overcoat. Stood behind him quietly. That was all. But others called it charm, finesse. My father’s elegance finding a place for itself in humility.
“You have a nice way about you, young man. You should be working in a better job. I want you to go talk to someone I know.” This was how your life was changed. A white man noticed you, opened the door of his world, and rearranged your fate.
Now my father’s steady money makes him a homeowner and a man well-liked in the barbershop.
“You see that nigger over there, ’cross the street?” The dark-skinned man sitting in the barber chair talks loud enough for everyone in the shop to hear. He wears black, see-through socks, like a woman’s stockings, and expensive casual clothes—knitted wool and suede. Two-tone shoes, squeaking with newness.
“Yeah, what about him?” asks Mr. Jerome.
“That boy’s a nigger and gon’ be a nigger to the day he die.”
“What you mean by that, Reverend?” Mr. Jerome asks again. The reverend he’s talking to doesn’t look like a minister to me. He’s nothing like Deacon Patterson, who speaks softly and waits shyly for his “plate” during our neighborhood’s annual fish fry. Certainly, he’s nothing like the Catholic priests we see at school. But reverend is what everyone calls him.
“Just look at him,” the reverend says. “Look at how he walk, how he dressed. Look at that look on his face. His hair ain’t even combed. He ain’t goin’ nowhere and he don’t wanna go nowhere. White man got him right where he want him. Got him likin’ where he’s at.”
“Now, Rev, you oughtta be shame to yo’self,” says Mr. Jerome, who acts calm but seems irritated. “You don’t even know that man. That man might be comin’ from work. He mighta been robbed. Mighta give all his money to his mother. You can’t go ’round judgin’ folks, Reverend. Somebody might be saying the same thing about you.”
“They can’t say the same thing about me. And I don’t care how hard you been workin’, you can always comb your hair. You can always have a little pride. Hell, pride’s the one thing keep you goin’ sometimes.”
“Don’t matter none, Reverend. White folks call you nigger just the same.”
“Since when did white folks learn how to tell one of us from the other? You know as well as I do that there’s a difference between being a NeGRO and being a nigger. I’m a NeGRO. Just like everybody else in here.” Then the reverend ticks off the things that make the difference—his house, his car, his investments, his job, his family, the amount of schooling he’s had, his church, the fact that he’s here in this barbershop instead of on Auburn Avenue having his hair straightened into a conk with lye.
“Ah, come on, Reverend. Why you wanna talk like that for?”
“Cause niggers who we gotta watch out for, son.”
"I tell you what I mean. You got a house? Well think about this. You can make it fireproof, right?"
"You can make it waterproof, right?"
"You can even make it burglar proof, correct?"
"But you know the one thing you can't make it?"
"You can't make it nigger proof."
This cracks the place up. Half a dozen comments fly helter-skelter through the wheezy laughter. Then the reverend takes center stage again.
"I ain't lying. Ya'll know I ain't lyin'. A nigger can break into anything, anywhere, anytime. Pretty soon the niggers gon be breaking in and tearing up around here. Looka those winders at that high school down yonder. Niggers vandalizing the one place that's trying to do 'em some good. That high school ain’t never belonged to white folks. They put it here for us thirty-some-ought years ago. And most of us went there too. Now look at it. That's why they don't fix 'em anymore. Why put in a new winder pane when somebody gon break it soon as you put it in. That's why these rich Negroes, all these doctors and what have you, are moving out to Collier Heights—out there where Rosie got his kids in that Catholic school."
Stephen and I look at each other. The reverend is right about the homes near our school, which is a long bus ride from where we live. Beautiful new homes, split-level brick jobs, long driveways that disappear into attached garages, the houses set way back on wooded lots that make our double-lot home in the Castle Park area seem small.
“They got to move out there,” says the reverend, who is center stage and knows it. “They ain’t got nowhere else to go. White man sho ain’t gon let ’em come to Buckhead, lessen it’s to work as a maid or chauffeur.”
This brings another big laugh from everyone. My father brings out his silver lighter and fires up another Camel. The checker-player in the corner double-jumps a king. Smoke floats beneath the ceiling like an ominous rain cloud. Everyone is laughing. The Negroes are moving farther and farther away from town to get away from the niggers. It is a joke everyone seems to understand. But I don’t see why it’s funny. When elementary school is over, I will have to move in the other direction—there are no private high schools for Negroes—and I am not looking forward to it.
My mother and father do not want us to be niggers. So they keep things from us. Things that might turn us into niggers, I suppose, if we knew about them. They put a chain-link fence around the yard. We are not permitted to play in the street. They send us to schools run by white nuns and priests. They supervise our every activity. Ask questions about our friends. Permit us to go only to movies approved by the Catholic Church. They sit down with us for dinner. We say grace before and after meals. My father will not let us come to the table in our undershirts—that's what niggers do; we must put on shirts and button them, or we don't come to the table at all. My mother makes sure we have a hot meal—oatmeal or grits, sometimes a little bacon or eggs to go with it—before going to school. They make us polish our shoes each night before hopping into bed. They stand over us while we do our homework. After homework we get to watch TV together as a family. There is only one TV in the house, and my mother makes the final decision about what we watch. My mother irons the white shirts and navy-blue slacks that are part of our school uniform. She gives the navy blue blazers with the gold-embroidered school emblem over the pocket to the dry cleaning man who makes pick-ups and deliveries to our front door. Before we go to school, my mother teaches us to read. She uses the Child Craft children’s encyclopedia, a collection of books called How and Why and an oversized picture dictionary. She’s smart. Even without a college degree, she taught seventh grade at Saint Jude’s School before we were born. She says you have to shape kids young or give them up for lost.
My mother buys flashcards to drill us in spelling, multiplication and division. She brings out the flashcards and drills the material into us before the teacher gets to it in school. She calls us in from the back yard where we are playing baseball or basketball with our friends. “Time to study,” she says. “Say ‘excuse me’ to your friends and come get your lessons.” She says it like she’s got hot apple pie and ice cream inside. Instead it’s those damn flash cards. She wants us always to be ahead of everyone else. She does not want us to fall behind. She does not want us to turn out to be niggers. The hard work of bringing up good Negroes is upon them, and my parents meet that task with sacrifice, industry, a saintly sense of purpose.
On Sunday mornings when the Buick is not working—it works less and less now that my parents are paying tuition for school—my father sometimes takes us by bus to Saint Jude’s Church. The bus travels along Auburn Avenue, and we pass a string of night spots on the way. Young black men in shiny clothes that look expensive at night, cheap by day, are wearing conk rags, leaning against the walls, smoking cigarettes, talking and grinning. Each is in the same pose—one hand holding a cigarette, the other fingering the crotch of his pants. It's more of a flicking motion, like they're trying to scrape something off their dicks without taking off their pants. It is eight o'clock on a Sunday morning, and even though it's broad daylight, they don't seem the least bit ashamed. They act as if dick-flicking is as neutral an activity as brushing lint off a coat sleeve. I look at them through the bus window. I can never figure out what they're doing or why. My father sees me looking. "If I ever see you boys doing something like that, I'll hit you so hard you'll think you been struck by lightning."
I see now that to act like a nigger is a sin against the Negro race. I understand that men who lean against walls and play with their dicks in the morning sun are niggers.
I often wonder why my parents work so hard to make a good life for us. It's because they love us, of course. But also because everything they have learned so far tells them the world is not a friendly place to black folks—that you can't really trust it—and you have to work hard to overcome this universal predisposition against you. You must not only do your best to survive, you must struggle to improve and to become something better than a nigger.
As other black families put money into cars and bigger, newer homes, our parents are putting money into us. We are their investment. We are an extension and reflection of what they are. We are the proof that they are not niggers. Other people will judge them by what we do.
As part of her overall effort, my mother has made it her business to wipe out any and all traces of slave behavior in her children. She tutors us to be rigorously polite but not like other Southern blacks. She tells us to say Yes but never Yes, ma’am. Ma’am is too much like slavery. She teaches us never to lower our eyes to a white person. “Look them in the eye,” she tells us. “They are not better than you.” She says to question the truth of anything we hear, especially if it comes from a white person—because the failure to think independently is entirely too much like slavery.
Beyond the lip service I pay to the life of Christ and the example of saints we learn about at school, I fail to see a link between my father’s servitude on the trains and the humility of black, not-yet-sainted Blessed Martin de Porres, who was devoted to his work no matter how menial. I cultivate a patrician arrogance that will make it clear I am nobody’s slave.
I thumb through Ebony and Jet for images of Dr. Ralph Bunche, Thurgood Marshall, and A. Philip Randolph. Like my parents, I examine sports heroes—Roy Campanella, Sugar Ray Robinson—for alternatives to TV’s Amos and Andy or the shuffling janitor on My Little Margie. Every other week in the barbershop, I look to the men around me, waiting their turn for a shape-up, for some idea of what a man might be. The education I am receiving in Catholic schools run by white nuns and priests reinforces a haughty attitude that comes a bit too easily to me. I am learning what white people know, I tell myself. So why not be free the way white people are free?
I trust what my father is trying to do for us. But I don’t trust his whippings, always out of proportion to our crimes. I trust my mother, but only to a point. She loves us—I’m sure of that—but you never know what she will do. Her secret weapon is the back-handed slap. She slaps you in church or in a store or on the bus. She does it all too often so that other people can see. You never know when it’s going to happen. When it does happen you can’t do anything about it because this is your mother. And she’s doing it out of love. To save your soul from hell and to raise you as a good Negro.
My world feels unsafe because it is unpredictable. Especially when it comes to violence. The violence can come from your father, it can come from your mother. It can come from nuns wielding yardsticks, it can come from other black people carrying guns and knives and breaking into the house—something that has never happened but which we fear constantly.
Somewhere, too, in a world I have not met yet, there is violence from white folks. In Jet we see the coffin photo of a 14-year-old boy beaten, shot and thrown in the river for whistling at a white woman. We hear about the white sheets of the Ku Klux Klan. We know they will lynch you. They have already burned a cross on the lawn outside our school. But I have not experienced the violence of the white man yet—not directly. What I know of violence—and of racism for that matter—has come mainly from other blacks.
“Y’all niggers think y’all somethin, doncha?” Stephen and I are on our way from the bus stop, books and blue blazers in tow, school ties pulled down, white collars open. If there is one person we do not want to see, it’s The Rag Man. But here he is, McKinley Jackson. He lives somewhere on the fringe of our neighborhood in the land where you are mugged for lunch money or knocked around for seeming too middle-class, too much a mama’s boy, too white. It doesn’t matter whether you are any of those things. It only matters if you seem that way to The Rag Man. Sometimes he comes looking for prey among the sloping lawns and gabled homes near our bus stop. Some say he is called The Rag Man because that’s what his father does for a living. Others say it’s because your clothes will be in tatters when he’s finished with you. He shouts at us from his bicycle across the street.
“Why would you say that?” I say. It’s a bluff, but I’m hoping it will work. Stephen elbows me in the ribs. Even though he’s younger than me, he’s managed to make friends with kids from the street. He meets them through sports, the odd pick-up game in a friend’s backyard or a public playground where privilege faces off against poverty and something more important than the game seems to be at stake. Stephen can hold his own in any sport requiring a ball. In track, there’s no one faster. Sometimes one or two of the street kids follow him home, and my mother makes them stay for dinner. Awkward at table, they eat and she feeds them seconds. But The Rag Man does not know about this. He only knows we look different.
“You don’t know how to fight well enough to take on The Rag Man,” Stephen mutters. “You get smart with him, I’m the one that has to finish it.”
“Go to Catlick school. Wear uniforms. Think y’all some bad niggers, doncha?”
“We don’t think we’re niggers at all,” I say. “As for being bad—” Stephen hits me in the ribs again.
But I don’t stop. I have my mother in me. The part of her that keeps yapping at my father long past it’s safe for her to continue doing so.
The guy on the bike gets a puzzled look on his face. Like I’m speaking a foreign language. Which in a way is true. I talk like the people on TV and the white nuns and priests. I do not speak the same language as the kids on the street.
“Look like sissies to me.”
“Oh yeah? Come over here and say that.” I slip one hand into my pocket and step forward a little. I don’t know a thing about fighting, but I have no intention of backing down. Stephen looks at me like I’m crazy.
The Rag Man spins his bike into a wheelie and rolls across the street. Stephen and I drop our book bags and blazers on the sidewalk. Next thing I know all the air leaves my body and I’m lying on the ground. He took out the easy target first, but now The Rag Man and Stephen are rolling on the ground. When the rolling stops and Stephen winds up on the bottom I know I have to help. There are no thoughts in my mind, and I have no idea what to do. But something snaps inside me, and all of a sudden I have a wildness I have never experienced. I jump on The Rag Man’s back and lock my ankles around his stomach. I slide my wrists beneath his armpits and lock my hands behind his neck. It’s all the break Stephen needs to land a couple of good punches from his lying down position on the sidewalk.
“You god-damn Catlicks, you got-damn Catlicks,” The Rag Man is saying. He is getting mad, and I can feel the sweaty back of his T-shirt against my stomach, his heavy breath rising and falling within the vise-grip of I have tried to make of my legs. He rears up a little and rolls to the ground. When my back hits the sidewalk with his weight on top of me, I lose the grip around his neck. The Rag Man gets his knee in my stomach and blocks my fists with his hands. I see Stephen coming up behind him as a sharp noise cracks the air.
The Rag Man jumps up all and runs to his bike. “Got-damn Catlicks got a gun,” he’s saying as he takes off down the street.
“Who that out there making all that noise?” We recognize the sound of old Miss Holloway, the spinster church lady whose corner-lot privacy fence has been the back drop for our altercation. Stephen and I grab our books and coats and take off running down the street before she can see us. We realize now it was the hard slamming of her wooden screen door that ripped through the air like a gun shot, putting an end to the fight, but we don’t want her to know it was us. If she tells our parents, we will wish The Rag Man had killed us.
“Why did you have to go mouthin’ off to him?” Stephen says brushing off his pants.
“I wasn’t mouthin’ off at him. He was mouthin’ off at me.”
“You didn’t have to keep talking. It was a dumb thing to do. He was bigger than us. He might have had a knife. It could have turned out bad.”
“I didn’t want him to think we were afraid.”
“It could have turned out bad. You have to learn when to fight and when to walk away. Why the hell don’t you know that?”
“That boy’s a nigger,” I say, “and he’s going to be a nigger until the day he dies.”
At home, the smell of collards, meatloaf and sweet potatoes wraps itself around us the minute we walk through the door. After changing into jeans and T-shirts, we say grace before dinner, and our mother begins the mealtime conversation the same way she always does. “How was school?”
We tell her about math, geography, how one of the Henderson twins got sent home from school for refusing to say the noontime Angelus prayer.
“So why did it take you so long to get home this evening?”
Stephen and I know not to exchange a look in front of my mother. She’s too smart.
“There was a lot of traffic on Hightower for some reason,” I say. “I’m not sure why.”
“Yeah,” Stephen adds. “We couldn’t see too far in front of us.”
This seems to work. The conversation turns to other things. My chest, knees and elbows smart from our run-in with The Rag Man. The aches and pains are minor, but they feel like a hot iron marking some unseen place inside me with a message I have heard but do not feel until now: I will never, ever be a nigger.
“What if the world has other plans for you?”
I stare at my mother as if she’s read my thoughts.
“It doesn’t matter what the world wants,” I say. “What matters is what I want.”
“Oh, so you want to become a sprinter now too?” she asks. That’s when I realize her question was meant for Stephen, the family athlete—not for me, the family bookworm.
“Yes,” I say as if I’d been paying attention all along. “I’m going to run as hard and as fast as I can.”
She and Stephen look at me as if I’ve lost my mind. But I’ve only just found it.
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