I Ain't Average
It was a hot and sticky August day when I came into the world in 1958--at least, that's how I imagine it. Angela Evelyn Bassett is the name I was given--my middle name in honor of Aunt Evelyn.
But I've gotten ahead of myself. I need to start my story with my parents.
Mama didn't have the best luck when it came to men, but she always protected me from them. After she graduated from high school she migrated from St. Petersburg, Florida, to New York City, where she lived with her father's brother, Uncle Charles and his wife, Aunt Evelyn. That's where she met my daddy, Daniel Benjamin Bassett, who'd moved to New York from Winston-Salem, North Carolina. They met, dated, got pregnant with me, married and lived in a small apartment in Harlem. I think it was on Seventh Avenue across from Small's Paradise.
My father was very bright, a self-educated kind of man--he could talk to anyone about anything. Yet I always thought of him as a jack-of-all-trades but a master of none. He made his money working in the neighborhood, fixing jukeboxes and other electrical things. My mother, Betty Jane, was a nurse's aide or something like that. I have a really pretty picture of her in her white uniform. With both of them working, they didn't have much--even before I was born. Times were hard for black folks in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Ten months after I was born my mother got pregnant again. Of course, that only made things harder. I don't think my parents had considered how they would handle two babies, living in New York and both of them having to work. My mother never speaks poorly of my father, but sometimes she says he was frugal or stingy. According to her he was the kind of person where if she would say, "The baby needs shoes" and those shoes cost $4.72, he would count out $4.72--not $4.73--not a nickel more. Maybe he was broke, I don't know. I'm certain times were tight.
On top of struggling financially, my parents' relationship was troubled. My mother once told me a story of how she tried, or pretended to try, to leave my father in her trademark melodramatic style.
"We're leaving your daddy. We're leaving that man," she sang as she packed me into the car. His friends apparently reported to him, "They're in the car, and she's telling the baby she's leaving." He rushed home.
"What?" he said. "Get back in the house! You ain't leaving."
I also have a vague childhood memory of playing with a little white windup dog that flipped over and barked. I remember thinking the dog was fun. My mother was cooking greens. There was an argument about money--my daddy didn't want to give her money for food but he was eating the food--then a fight. A window got bumped then somehow my father's head was out the window. That's the only memory I have of being in that apartment. Maybe that was the kind of behavior my mother was trying to get us away from.
After Mom got pregnant with my sister D'nette, my parents shipped me down to Winston-Salem to stay with Daddy's sister Golden. Aunt Golden and her husband, Grover, didn't have any children of their own, but she was someone who loved children, and she was good with them--they were her background, her education, her love. And Uncle Grover didn't mind me coming to live with them. He was a barber and had his own barbershop, Sanitary Barbershop. Cutting heads was his thing.
I stayed with Aunt Golden and Uncle Grover in the little redbrick, two-bedroom house he had built on Graham Avenue near Winston-Salem Teachers' College, now Winston-Salem State University. The house had a porch with an aluminum glider on it and a magnolia tree in the front yard, a weeping willow in the back. I liked to play in the basement and was a good kid, from what they say. Aunt Golden and Uncle Grover had a committed and consistent relationship. They were good, God-fearing people who loved, supported and took care of each other. I never heard a harsh word said in their home.
My aunt Golden was a teacher, so she was gone during the day. While Auntie was at school I would stay with my grandmother, whose name was Brownie. Grandma Brownie lived in a little house across the street from the school. On Sundays I would go with either her or Auntie to Goler Metropolitan AME Zion Church. Auntie always dressed real fine and wore hats to church and all that stuff. She would dress me like a little doll baby in little frocks with gloves and little hats. As a small girl I was always repeating, "Praise the Lord!" and "Hallelujah!" which I heard at that church on Sundays.
Across the street from Aunt Golden and Uncle Grover, I had a girlfriend, Debra. I would play with her and her cousins, and we all went to church together. I probably heard Debra or my other little friends calling their mothers "Mommy"; I remember on several occasions attempting to call my auntie "Mommy" or "Mama." Now, I don't believe I ever tried to call Uncle Grover
"Daddy," but I did try to call Aunt Golden "Mommy."
"Angela, I am not your mother," she would tell me in a gentle voice. "You have a mama. I am Auntie." I would get upset and twist up my face. I wanted to have a mama.
One day when I was four I was in the basement playing when Auntie called me upstairs. "Angela, your mama's on the phone."
"Hi, Angela. This is Mama," said the voice on the other end of the line.
"I ain't got no mama," I shouted and threw down the phone. I remember feeling upset that the woman I lived with and loved was not my mother, yet here was this voice on the phone saying that she was my mother. It is the only telephone conversation I remember with my mother while I was living with Golden and Grover. I guess back in those days, people wrote letters, but I was too young to read.
The next thing I knew (I'm sure some days or weeks had passed), there was a knock on the door and a pretty, brown-skinned woman--my mother--was standing in the door frame. My mother looked nice, and I imagine my auntie told me at least a little something to expect--I don't remember it being traumatic. But the next thing you know, I was gone, headed to St. Petersburg, Florida, with her and my little sister, D'nette. To hear my mother tell it, while she was living with my dad she had a couple of nervous breakdowns and ended up in court. The judge told her to take her children and go home or he'd take us or put us in foster care.
"I'm going home," she told him. "I'll go home." That's when she left my father; although they didn't divorce until years later.
In St. Pete's we stayed with my mother's parents, Grandmother Emma and Granddaddy Leroy, whom we called Mama and Daddy. My mother got a job as an aide in a hospital. My grandmother took care of me while Auntie was at work. We'd sit and watch soap operas together. She'd have her coffee and I'd have my mug filled with coffee, which was really milk with a teaspoon of coffee in it. When her stories were over I'd fill up her green-stamp book, putting all the little stamps in their places. That was fun! When I finished that we would walk up to the little store and get my grape snow cone. Then I'd get into her big bed and take my nap. That was my day.
At night my mother went to secretarial school. She hadn't done well in high school--she said she was always slacking off with her girlfriend, skipping class and smoking, and barely graduated with Ds and Fs. Now she was paying for it and having to play catch-up while she had two little girls. We'd sit on the bed together and play a game where D'nette and I would show her flash cards with shorthand characters on them while she learned and figured them out. Eventually she got very good at all those squiggly lines and dots and stuff. Between that and the steno pad, she would do her thing.
D'nette and I got along well. She was fun and cute and happy to have a big sister. Being older I was always one step ahead of her. One time when we were home at Mama Emma's, I remember finding some scissors and playing barbershop just like Uncle Grover.
"Let's play barbershop," I said to D'nette, and cut off all her little plaits. When I finished, she smiled and said, "Now let's do yours." I said, "No, let's do something else." When my mother came home from work that day, she beat the daylights out of me. I was always outsmarting D'nette like that.
"I have five moneys and you have one money," I'd say. "I'll give you my money for your money."
"Okay." And of course my money was a nickel and a couple of pennies and hers was a quarter. Then she'd want to have her turn.
"No," I'd say and change the subject. "Want some cookies?" ** *
So we lived with my grandparents for maybe a year. My mother got along with her dad--she was a daddy's girl--but didn't get along with her mom at the time. There was a lot of "get-down"--arguing--between them. Maybe it was because my grandmother had become a Jehovah's Witness, with all its tightenings and restrictions.
When my mother couldn't stand living with her parents anymore, we moved out of Grandmom and Granddaddy's house and into a little dinky shotgun apartment on the other side of the railroad tracks that ran behind the "beer garden." A beer garden is a saloon, one of those little joints where the barflies hang out. They've got peanut hulls and sawdust on the floor. For fifty cents or maybe a dollar you could get a crab, a red potato and half an ear of corn wrapped in newsprint. My grandmother's sister Viola and her husband, Hiram, owned and ran it. You know how it goes: Mama Emma was the pious church girl, Viola ran the beer garden and the baby girl, my mother's youngest sister, Inez, was a teacher. Anyhow, our little house must have been cheap, cheap, cheap, cheap, cheap--Oh God, it was po' and nasty! We had indoor plumbing but there were roaches and all that stuff. It was funky, tired, to' down, wretched and just awful!
Daddy Leroy would come see us all the time while we lived in that shotgun shack. He and my grandmother lived together and seemed to get along just fine, but Grandmom was way off into her Jehovah's Witness thing. My maternal great-grandfather Slater Samuel Stokes, whom we called Papa, was a preacher. But apparently Grandmom never received answers to her spiritual questions in her father's church. Whoever comes along and meets you where you are, that's where you go. In Grandmom's case, to everyone's dismay, the people who she "met" were Jehovah's Witnesses.
Meanwhile, my grandfather just wanted some "peanuts," as my mother called sex. He had a "girlfriend" who lived across the street from the projects in a two-story shack building. He would see her and then come visit us. We knew Granddaddy was married to Grandmom, but we also knew that he had a woman on the side.
Before long, my mother moved us out of the shanty and into the Jordan Park Projects a few blocks away. We had a one-bedroom apartment on the second floor. We didn't have much. We were on welfare. We got blocks of government cheese and peanut butter. I remember taking money out of my mama's purse and going to the store every day and buying honey buns, candy and soda. It wasn't much at the time--maybe a nickel--but it was still stealing. I would buy my honey bun and a soda and maybe some candy cigarettes or a candy necklace. Or I might get a peppermint or grape or green-apple Jolly Ranchers hard candy and stick it down into a dill pickle and suck the dill pickle for a sweet-and-sour taste. Later we moved into a two-bedroom, ground-floor apartment with a porch. D'nette and I shared a bedroom that looked out onto the clothesline. No matter what direction you looked you were facing a brick building. At least the kitchen looked out at Jordan Park, the all-black elementary school we attended. We would cross the street, flip ourselves over the fence, walk across the playground, climb over the monkey bars and go on up to class.
My mother may have struggled in school and early in her life, but she had an excellence about her and passed it on to us. Mama didn't want us to suffer her fate and she would tell us as much. She made sure we looked nice. She made sure we did well in school. She raised us up to love God. On Sundays we would walk together to Stewart Memorial CME Church where we attended Sunday school and service. I was part of the youth choir and had a great time singing. Ma was a deaconess. She sang in the adult choir. Her favorite song is "His Eye Is on the Sparrow," which she sang as a high soprano with her typical melodrama. I would be so embarrassed. One of my favorite memories is watching Papa sing "Take Your Troubles to the Lord and Leave Them There" while he was standing in front of the altar of his church. He took this white handkerchief out of his pocket and threw it across his shoulder like it represented his burdens weighing down on him real heavily. When he finished the song--Take your burdens to the Lord and leave them there--he took the handkerchief off his shoulder, threw it over the altar with a flourish and turned on his heel and walked away lighter. I remember sitting there rapt. "Wow, Papa!" It was great acting and great theater. I come from a very dramatic family.
At home I played with my baby dolls and cut out patterns for them. I had lots of dolls. When I was a little girl I had white dolls--that's all there were. I remember little black girls with white baby dolls. But after James Brown came out with "Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud," I remember black dolls coming out on the market. Aunt Golden sent me and D'nette these two black baby dolls--they were two or three feet tall. You could hold their hands and walk with them. I always thought the black baby dolls were pretty; it was nice to see a baby doll that looked just like me. We'd comb their hair then my cousin cut their hair--then we needed new dolls. There were some black girls who still wanted white dolls--that's what they were used to. Personally, I never had Barbie dolls because they didn't look like me.
We watched Julia, Bonanza, The Monkees and Tarzan on TV. Mom would have us sing and perform together Motown hits that were popular on the radio. The latest single would come out, "Papa Was a Rolling Stone" or "Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud," or "You Got Me Going in Circles," and she'd have us act it out. Then one of the ladies in the neighborhood who liked kids helped us form a little dance group. We'd make up dances and sing to songs like "Kung Fu Fighting" and perform them at the local Delta Sigma Theta mixer. I laugh when I think back on how much all this would aid me as a lip-syncher later in life. Mom would also take us to the movies. We saw Lady Sings the Blues, which my sister loved--after she saw it we had to learn all the Diana Ross songs. We also saw The Ten Commandments and Superfly. I was in love with the Jackson 5 and daydreamed I would marry one of them--probably whoever had the cutest, roundest Afro at the time. In my imagination we would have children and live in a real house.