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An American Story

by Debra J. Dickerson

Paperback, 285 pages, Random House Inc, List Price: $13.95 |


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Book Summary

In a compelling memoir, a noted African-American journalist describes her personal journey and the influence of her heritage on her life and career, detailing the crippling self-doubt of her adolescence, her belief in the power of education, her career as a military intelligence officer, her years at Harvard Law School, and her work as a journalist. Reprint. 50,000 first printing.

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Excerpt: An American Story

From: chapter one


It wasn't just the social and historical contexts into which I was born that made me gnaw at the corners of my place in the scheme of things; there were also the specifics of my large and close-knit family. My mother's side, my closest side, is full of vinegary characters who, out of pure cussedness, loved to fight whatever power was closest to hand. (Usually, this fight was verbal rather than legal or physical; in my family, a cutting wit is the weapon of choice. Since the little guy couldn't actually change his situation, we believe, he might as well make fun of it.) Despite their many years sharecropping in the Mississippi Delta, they rarely expended much of their hell-raising energy railing against whites.

My maternal grandfather, John Bishop "Paw Paw" Gooch, was not exactly a Norman Rockwell figure. His stories, and he had lots of them, were always either profane, sacrilegious, or X-rated, but blacks were almost always the main players. "White folks don bother me," he used to say, "you know in the fust fi minutes where you stands wid any particular one of em. 'S niggers that cause all my problems." He cackled about having been too young to fight in World War I and too old for World War II. He cheated his great-grandchildren at board games and blew smoke in their faces if they complained. He once tossed a crumpled dollar bill at a preteen collecting for football uniforms on the street and sneered, "Now quit beggin." He pinched my teenage girlfriends' behinds at holiday gatherings and convinced his cronies that I was his wife. I was eleven.

When the Gooches got together, laughter and liquor flowed and everybody yelled at once, jockeying for the floor in a wonderful cacophony. Their stories, by and large, all had punch lines rather than the indictments one might have expected. They were intended to entertain, to capture the spirit of the times and the personalities of their friends and neighbors. While there were, of course, stand-alone stories of white brutality and the like, those were rare. Jim Crow was the backdrop to all their lives, but they seemed to regard it with the same spirit of inventiveness and perspicacity as they did the weather: something to be circumvented and outfoxed, or, failing that, to be borne. Rarely was the degradation the point of a story; it was merely the framework. Their stories were of people, not politics.

Born in 1927, my mother, Johnnie Florence Gooch, was her mother's right hand, just as I am to her. Paw Paw had fourteen siblings, my grandmother Ouida six; my mother was the third of their eight children. The surrounding area teemed with Gooch relations as her family farmed for the man who owned nearly everything and everyone for miles. When her mother died trying to give birth for the ninth time, fifteen-year-old Johnnie took on the role that still defines her: mother. Though life was hard, with so many relatives able to hunt, fish, and farm, the family managed.

My grandmother's side of the family was highly prized for its looks--meaning, of course, their light skin and "good" hair. These traits come from ancestors like my great-great-grandmother. Belle was white, the illegitimate child of the master's daughter and a white stable hand. When his daughter got pregnant, the master hid her away and forced her to give birth in secret to my great-great-grandmother. Then, my entirely white ancestor was torn from her mother and given to the slaves to raise. Granma Belle, now "black," married Henry, a Mohawk Indian, and had six children. Looking white was one of the few assets the Williams line possessed; they knew it had value. When my mother's oldest sibling was born, my white-looking grandmother wept because she was dark, like my grandfather. "Y'all married dark," she'd wailed to two of her sisters, "but yo babies aint black." At gatherings, my mother's aunts inspected the child for signs of lightening as she stood helplessly under their disapproving gaze. While my mother is a medium brown, her long, wavy Indian-black hair and Lena Horne looks spared her this indignity.

On my grandfather's side, another ancestor's master freed him on his deathbed; he resold himself into slavery for a fancy pair of boots. One of their children married an Indian and gave birth to my great-grandmother. Paw Paw's grandmother, an African-born slave, also married an Indian. She had nine children before being sold away and lost to the family forever. Grandpa George, her Cherokee husband, was shot and killed in an argument over who was going to call at a square dance.

With this pedigree, there was no way this family could take itself too seriously. So they sang, they danced, they drank on the holidays and didn't think about work or white folks except when dealing with either directly. And they had lots of kids: I have thirty first cousins.

To think of sharecropping, Depression-era Mississippi is to think of oppression and deprivation. But in the Mississippi I heard about at home, there were usually only little stories; not lynchings but church lunches. Not rape but revival meetings. Like the local man with two wives--one for planting-time and one for harvest-time. One was so mean, with a wife so timid, that he kept her home just by sprinkling a ring of soot around the house and forbidding her to cross it. But another mean wife-beater wasn't quite so good at his job. His wife, the one he thought he'd cowed, used heavy twine to sew him up in their thick muslin sheets as he slept and beat him half to death with a poker. I heard about the several white families near the Gooches who were so poor my grandmother would take them in during cold spells so they wouldn't freeze to death. All the kids, black and white, slept together like a brood of snuggling puppies. The next day, my grandmother would delouse her children with lye; everybody knew that poor white trash had lice.

Dire though their circumstances were, I'm hard pressed to come up with many Gooch stories about the particular evil of Mississippi whites.

Hard pressed but not incapable.

There was the time the rich white landowner took a driving tour through his feudal holdings, spied my great-great-aunt's lush garden, kicked open their door, and demanded half: "What grows on my land belongs to me!" He made clear his intention to claim half in perpetuity, so they plowed the garden under that night. And then there were all the times the overlord sent for his vassals to perform some menial labor in his baronial mansion, like furniture-moving or trash-hauling. They made a habit of showing up drunk, so that custom withered away as heirloom china shattered on the polished oak floors of de Big House.

Degradation was a daily occurrence for them, yet I have to comb through my memory for stories like that. I don't believe I could come up with many more. Except, of course, for the worst one, the one I'll never forgive that Southern system of apartheid for.

Though for years my mother moved me to tears with the sad story of her mother's childbed death, I was nearly grown before she added the details many others would have put first. A white doctor had managed to stabilize my grandmother, though her condition remained grave. He left firm instructions that she was to be left alone, that only he would attend her. White interns, eager to practice their newfound surgical arts, operated on her for practice anyway. Drastically weakened, infected from the botched job, and afraid of what else they might do to her, my grandmother hid the pills they gave her in the masses of her curly black hair and died. It's not clear that the pills would have saved her, or even exactly what they were for, but none of the family ever doubted the wisdom of her refusing further treatment. Having heard about the forced surgery, the Gooches were coming to take her home to safety. But they were too late.

To my mother, that story is only about inevitability and loss. It's about hearing those tiny little pills click-clack against the floor tiles when they came to claim the body, watching them skitter heedlessly, impotently buffeted by forces so much stronger than they. This was not--as it was for me, when I tried to radicalize her later--a story about white perfidy and the valuelessness of black existence. To accept that version, she would have had to have been a different person, a person who could hate.

She rarely told a story the point of which was anything other than simple entertainment. She kept up with the yearly (pre-VCR) showings of Cinderella, The Wizard of Oz, and Peter Pan; she clapped as hard as we did to keep Tinkerbell alive. She made the simplest tasks and events seem fabulous, which is not to suggest that she wasn't a stern taskmaster; no drill sergeant set higher standards than did she. For her, there were only two ways to do anything: "my way and the wrong way." The wrong way got you whipped, so we stepped lively. Take hanging out the wash.

After manhandling it through our wringer washer (a big improvement over the scrub board and big iron tub that used to turn Mama's knuckles to sausage, but still hard work), our job had just begun. It had to be hung in a particular order (men's shirts, men's pants, all underwear--in their proper, gendered order--obscured in the middle for decency's sake); in a particular manner (right side out, right side up, front facing the house if out back, the basement stairs if inside); and with a specified number of pins (five per sheet, two per shirt unless it's a baby's, in which case . . . ); pinned in a prescribed fashion (shirts: one at each shoulder . . . ). An overuse of clothespins was wasteful, an underuse was trifling, slovenly. Any deviation was "jes doin things any ol' kinda way."

Worse than her whippings was her wit. If I daydreamed while a pot of water hissed and bubbled unnoticed, Mama would quip, "What you want that pot to do 'sides boil?" If some lazybones replaced an empty box in the pantry, she'd ask innocently, "When you colleck enough, you get a prize?" But when the housework was done, she let her hair down.

Everything arouses wonder and curiosity in Johnnie Florence. She doesn't hate whites or the rich or the bosses, merely the unkind. When I asked her how it felt to live under Jim Crow, she said guilelessly, "I guess I just dint wan go nowhere the white folks dint want me going ner do nothing they dint want me doin." This kind of talk infuriated my father because, you see, my daddy was a person who could hate.

Born in 1924 in Covington, Tennessee, Eddie Mack Dickerson's family was very small and soon to become even smaller. Both his parents (Robert and Landora) were dead of tuberculosis by the time he was six. He didn't even remember his mother; she was dead by his second birthday, another grandmother I would never know. Mary, his only sibling, would succumb to that same killer in a few years. He was shunted from one ever more distant relative to another as TB devastated his entire region along with his family.

Orphaned and no doubt traumatized, my father and my aunt, who would soon leave him, first landed with their grandparents, Eddie and Mariah. Eddie drank and used his fists. So much so, his own daughters married at the onset of menses to escape him. His wife, lacking such an alternative, rarely roused herself to take note of her surroundings. My father, the little boy, eventually cowed his bestial grandfather into drunken submission and provided a safe haven for his fading sister and grandmother. "Safety," in such circumstances, however, was a relative term.

Though they were no longer beaten, my great-grandfather continued to drink. No longer free to physically maul and maim, he made their miserable shotgun cabin a place haunted by a living, malevolent ghost. His drinking made him incapable of bringing in the crop: this task fell to my eleven-year-old father. So, the prepubescent Eddie Mack spent those years hat in hand, begging the white folks for more time, more credit, more daylight so he could get it all done.

All in all, my father had a loveless, most un-Gooch-like childhood and he rarely discussed it with his children.
What he did discuss was white people and their evil. Most of his stories revolved around one basic theme: the fortitude required of blacks living in a white man's world. Whites made his grandfather a drunk, whites made him farm land he could never own, whites killed his family with overwork and inhumane conditions. Whites set him adrift in the world, a peasant chained to a country they never let him forget wasn't his. He lived his life at a slow boil, always on the verge of an eruption. His anger at life's unfairness (a.k.a. "the white man") was a seething socket deep within him that he plugged into for energy and drive.

Daddy was confused about whites, though. He must have been, because when World War II began, he voluntarily enlisted. Why fight for a country of which you consider yourself a noncitizen, a country you consider to be profoundly evil and incapable of change? But in the end, his service was the thing he was most proud of in life. In the United States Marine Corps he found the family he desperately longed to have. The Marines made him part of something larger than himself, that had a glorious history, and that ensnared him in bonds of familiarity and joint effort. No more loneliness, no more adolescence and fear. Just as the Air Force would for me forty years later, the Marines set his fighting spirit alight; that light never went out again, not for the rest of his life. It put the finishing touches on the stoicism and grit he'd honed as a child and young man and gave it direction. Eddie Mack Dickerson was a United States marine until the day he died.

Unfortunately, once the war was over, there was little call for trained killers.

Mustered out, he joined some distant cousins in St. Louis and married my mother. He'd fought on Okinawa with her cousin Smitty, whom she pen-palled through the war. Daddy bartered his precious cigarettes for her photo as they steamed toward Okinawa. He vowed to marry the beauty in the picture he carried for the rest of the war when he got home, and that's exactly what he did.

Daddy did his best to train us to follow in his gritty footsteps. He taught us the proper way to bayonet an enemy (which was much simpler with the scrawny Japanese than when he'd practiced in boot camp at Parris Island), bragged about how many hours straight he could plow in subzero temperatures, lectured us on how ill prepared we were for the rigors of life and how likely we were to starve to death. He dismissed my mother's stories as frivolous because unlikely to put food on the table. He always did things the hard way: he refused to see doctors, he acquired everything secondhand, he never conceded a point in an argument no matter how wrong he was. He even refused to cry out when the truck he was working on fell and crushed his leg. He needed to fight; he needed an enemy, something to defeat or at least to resist, so he wouldn't feel helpless. He also needed an audience to witness his victories--that's where we came in.

For all his ferocity, though, he was also the man who fell in love with a photo and made up nonsense songs for his kids. Apropos of nothing, he'd drop to the floor and pump out innumerable push-ups for our amazement. He used to run up and down the block with us dangling from his biceps. He was a shameless poser and show-off and we loved him for it.

Though both my parents, like millions of black Americans, made a conscious choice to thumb their noses at Jim Crow by migrating, in the end only Mama was able to leave her anger at the Mason-Dixon line. Daddy brought Jim Crow with him. He smuggled it in, a stowaway in his heart, an overstuffed duffel bag about to burst at the seams.

zoo-zoos and lollipops

None of us six kids were born down South, but we might as well have been. Beginning in 1948 with JoAnn, followed by Dorothy in 1955, Wina in 1957, me in 1959, Necie in 1960, and ending in 1963 with Bobby, we were Southerners through and through, whatever our Northern address might have told the world about us. We slopped up Karo "serp" with white bread and called it breakfast. We crumbled up cornbread in our buttermilk and called it dessert. We insulted each other's mothers and called it "playin the dozens" without a clue that we were perpetuating the tradition of slave auctioneers comically wholesaling our least desirable forebears by "the dozens" to the steady beat of their wallet-loosening insults. We were country when country wasn't cool.

For all their differences, both parents brought the same country ways from the South, as did everyone else we knew. Most of all, that meant their Southern Baptist fundamentalism. We couldn't play cards (tools of the devil) or games with dice in them (like Monopoly). Nor, for example, could we accuse anyone of lying; instead, they were "tellin a story." Anyone born into a generation before yours was "ma'am" or "sir." If Mama could hear us through the open windows "loud-talkin" (ever the sorceress, she could sort our voices out among all the summer shouting of children), we had to come in from play and sit quietly "like ladies." If she called to us and we answered "What?" or "Yeah?" instead of "Ma'am?" we were, at a minimum, called to her for a smack. The rod was not spared and the child was not spoiled.

We were in church each Wednesday night for choir practice, and from 8 a.m. on Sunday until 3:00 in the afternoon, longer if folks got to shouting. Neighbors we knew as taxi drivers and janitors mounted the pulpit on Sunday to lead flocks sometimes numbering in the hundreds. Few of them were ordained, fewer had any religious instruction at all. Some were illiterate. But all that mattered to us was whether or not Brother So-and-so could preach--and boy could they.

I heard sermons containing impromptu riffs composed entirely of punch lines from commercials ("Jesus'll be yo Cok-Cola: He the real thang!") and pop songs ("Y'all better stop! in the name of His love"). Our church was full of rituals no one could explain. I'd chase the minister down after services full of questions: What does the "Missionary" in Emmanuel Missionary Baptist Church mean? Why ring those bells at those particular moments and what do they signify? Why do we call those funereal, a capella dirgelike hymns that the whole congregation sings together, "Dr. Watts"? During the service, from the choir stand, I had hours to look out over the congregation at the back wall with its mural of a blindingly blond Jesus suffering nobly on the cross, the only white man for miles.

I didn't mind church back then, it was just another of the inexorable rhythms of our closed little world. Poindexter that I was, I even liked Sunday school, if only because it provided me with a second set of kids to compete against. There, I was always the only kid who'd not only done the homework but had gone for extra credit besides. I got pinched a lot when grandmotherly Sister Bibbs wasn't looking.

Our religion went everywhere with us even as it never left our home. When we took our seats for meals, Daddy blessed the table in the same manner each time. He, of course, sat at the head of the table, his back to the sink and window. Mama sat at the opposite end. I sat to his right, Bobby next to me, and Necie next to him. (Bobby was left-handed, so we had elbow wars for many years, but I wouldn't give up my seat next to Daddy.) Dorothy, Wina, and JoAnn sat on Daddy's left.

"HeavenlyFatherwedohumblythankThee [breathe] forwhatwe're
abouttoreceive [breathe] forthenourishmentofourbodies [breathe] for Christ's sake Amen."

We'd recited this prayer so many times, the punctuation marks and capital letters had all worn away and the words had rearranged themselves so as to best match Daddy's breathing patterns. When he was away from home, as he often was with his truck on long hauls, Mama designated someone to bless the table. Invariably, they phrased it with all Daddy's worn-away edges, whatever our own natural rhythm might have been. I can't recite that blessing even now without doing it exactly the way Daddy did for so many years.

After Daddy said the magic words, we went around the table and each person recited a Bible verse. Usually, everyone said the shortest one in the Bible: "Jesus wept." Even on a school field trip, you were expected to mumble this incantation over your dried bologna sandwich and shriveled apple. Without reflection, I always did, as did all the other kids in our neighborhood except the pariahs, the ones from slovenly, non-churchgoing homes; where I lived, no one was ever teased for blessing their paper-sack lunch or bag of potato chips. I never doubted the truth of Mama's warning that unblessed food would give us a stomachache. It wasn't a punishment but simple cause and effect: step out into traffic and get hit by a car. Skip the blessing and get a stomachache. But I rarely said "Jesus wept."

I would spend hours with the Bible before dinner, finding long, twisty verses full of archaic language. Then I'd recite them when my turn came to say a verse. No one would dare interrupt a recitation from the Bible, so I got to orate for as long as I liked. At first, I looked up the most common ones, just to make sure the ministers were getting them right. Then I searched for interesting ones about wars or funny stories. But soon, I was interested merely in length and complexity. All around me I could hear stomachs growling and Mama sighing. I was often kicked under the table, but nothing would stop me from "winning" at the verse. Often, I'd end my orations with a vocal flourish and a derisive "Jesus wept."

In the mid-1950s, with JoAnn and Dorothy born, my family was still so new to the North that they had to give up raising pet rabbits in the backyard because the neighbors ate them. The rabbits would have had to go anyway eventually as my father's junk began to take over more and more of the backyard.

He'd long since turned the basement into a dark catacomb filled with long-forgotten crates that, even so, could not be parted with. Ever the orphan required to survive by his wits, what seemed like trash to other people looked like pennies from heaven to him. An irredeemable pack rat and independent trucker always operating on a shoestring, he kept the yard filled with transmissions and dead batteries, cannibalized trucks and cars teetering on bricks, piles of mismatched hubcabs and lots of unidentifiable, greasy gizmos, all of which he was confident he would one day put to use. When Sanford & Son aired in the 1970s, the other kids would torment us by humming the theme as my father passed by. But when I was a child, his junk piles were a paradise full of fun stuff to play with and cozy hiding places to curl up in with a book.

Driving anywhere with Daddy was an adventure when I was small. I loved the station wagons he created for us from the varied parts of many other sacrificial cars. We never knew what we'd be riding in, but there were some constants: multicolored bodies with mismatched tires and doors that almost fit. Missing windows replaced with cardboard we thought was there for us to draw on, missing floorboards we could drag our Keds out of when Mama wasn't looking. More often than not, we'd end up getting to play alongside the road while Daddy jogged up the highway to the nearest gas station for water to pour into a radiator on its last legs or ripped up old rags to secure a muffler. People honked and pointed at us as we passed; it felt special, like being part of a circus caravan.

He would pull the car over--whether we were on a side road or jam-packed Highway 70--and pick up any box, bag, or jug that looked likely. Whatever it contained, Daddy would bring it home with us. Whatever its condition, he made us use it. This included a box of key blanks; toilet paper rain-swollen to volleyball size and notebook paper consistency; a shampoo so tarlike and viscous we knew it had been dumped on purpose; an armchair with actual bloodstains and tire marks.

Daddy's finds went far beyond car parts and household goods to include fancy toys discarded by the rich. They kept us in demand as playmates and made Daddy famous as a master magician who could make something from nothing. He loved the spotlight and showed off like a teenage boy deep in the throes of puberty. This he always managed to do in ways that accentuated his towering maleness--like extravagantly romancing his wife.

Many mornings when I was small, he smooched theatrically with my waitress mother before leaving to drive his truck. There in the darkness of our predawn kitchen, he would sneak up on her from the hallway with a soundlessness eerie for such a strapping man. He would sweep her up off her feet and into his arms for a loud, smacky kiss that bent her over backward and lifted her half a foot off the cracked linoleum. He winked at us over her shoulder and, one-handed, shook her gently like a rag doll just to show us that he could. The other hand undid her chaste bun and sent her hair tumbling down her back. Just like the ladies in the movies, Mama would squeak out little helpless protests about the bacon burning or the kids watching, but he never listened and she really didn't seem to mind.

On such a morning, one with big, smoochy kisses, he flipped his spare change at us for penny candy.

"Go get y'all some zoo-zoos and lollipops." Smug, as if he were tossing gold doubloons to filthy urchins from the velvet-curtained windows of a royal coach. Mindless of our dignity, and enchanted by the nonsense words he was always inventing, we swarmed him, shoving for our God-given right to one sixth of any booty. When you're one of six, you snooze? You lose. Pride be damned.

Mama tsk-tsked.

"Eddie, caint you jes divide it up and give it to em?" She tried to swat us apart with her dishcloth.

"Nah. Good for em. In boot camp on Parris Island, they'd lock us in at night one rifle short." He squinted evilly at Mama. "Guess who always had him a rifle come mornin."

So there you have it. Sorcery and happy endings in one ear, fratricide and mortal combat in the other. But the turmoil inherent in these crosscurrents remained dormant then, back in the day. In the early years of my childhood the Dickersons were a happy family.

It was always summertime then, in the 1960s. Even my winter memories are warm. Keds and PF Flyers and bicycles whizzing by, drinking straws laced in the spokes for maximum annoyance. Eighty-five percent humidity. Vaseline dripping down bony legs fried charcoal from the sun. Scalp sweat making the edges of hot-combed hair "go back" to nappiness. Mamas in pink waitress, beige custodian, blue nurse's aide uniforms yelling through open windows, spatula in hand, the instant the streetlights came on. Captured fireflies shooting frenetic sparks of light from poorly scrubbed mayonnaise jars. The smell of greens and cornbread, black-eyed peas and cornbread, boiled cabbage and cornbread, butter beans and cornbread, fried green tomatoes and cornbread rumbling our stomachs with anticipatory pleasure as we made for home. Rubber-band rope, rock school, double Dutch. Mega hide-and-go-seek games involving thirty kids or more rolling themselves under cars and crouching on low roofs. Kids everywhere. Not only did the seasons stay the same in St. Louis, neither did the neighborhood change. In the fifteen years my parents lived together on Terry Avenue, exactly one family moved out, exactly one moved in. Even the Dodds next door, the last white family for miles around, left the neighborhood only for his funeral and her entrance into a nursing home.

Their son Evan was the last white at Beaumont High, which was rapidly turning into one of the toughest schools in the city. He would sit placidly on our porch while we performed racial experiments on him: how red could a pinch make his skin, could his stringy hair be cornrowed, what effect would Vaseline, the Negro ur-unguent, have on it? Evan, a long-haired hippie freak, prowled the neighborhood in the hearse he'd refurbished, a gaggle of us kids stuffed inside. We took turns being the corpse, stretching out in the back while the others imitated the fat old ladies at funerals who bellowed their grief and tried to climb into the casket with the dearly departed.
On our block, no deed, good or bad, went unobserved. No deed, good or bad, went unreported. No village in China kept a closer eye on its inhabitants than did we. After I smarted off to Mr. Banks at the Clark gas station on the corner, my mother was waiting on the porch to slap my face and march me back the half block to apologize. The phone still jangled in its cradle.

On the other side of the Clark station was Kingshighway Avenue, running the length of the city north to south. We were very economical in our approach to it--we only used its northern end. To the south lay white St. Louis, as completely off-limits to us as if there were a second Grand Canyon there where Kingshighway crossed Forest Park. No one had to warn me to stay out of the south side just as no one had to warn me not to touch a hot stove. I didn't really understand that whites lived there, just that we couldn't. The only time we left our neighborhood was on Christmas Eve when Daddy took us to see the displays.

High on homemade sweets and overexcited by the magic of the Christmases Mama conjured for us then, we claimed the streets of our hometown for a night like victorious GIs on town pass. Those Christmas Eves sauntering around downtown St. Louis in the winter chill ogling the dazzling store windows and mechanical Santas were the only times I ever felt like a citizen. It was the only time we had full access to a nonblack neighborhood without having to worry, the only times we saw what the other 99 percent of America looked like and where all our tax dollars were going.

We oohed and aahed, pushed and shoved, fought and made up in the unstable kaleidoscope of alliances and insurgencies, d?tente and stalemate that demarcate the universe of six siblings required by family law to be all the friends any of us would ever need. Daddy would stay on the fringe of our family stroll, righting a toddler splayed on an icy patch, deputizing the two oldest to get hot chocolates, lifting six-year-old me high enough to see over some other father's fedora. Simultaneously wary and relaxed, like the bodyguard of a minor monarch's third son, he managed to seem both with us and employed by us. Chain-smoking cigarettes he rolled from his ubiquitous Prince Albert can, he nodded and made a measuring eye contact with passersby. Those polite eyes said, "Jes lookin at the lights. Not going to steal anything. Please don't ruin our Christmas." The aggressive tilt of his head, the square of his shoulders, and the promise of a rapid response from the muscles he rippled at will made the "please" revocable.

I never asked to see St. Louis on any other occasion; I knew somehow that our Christmas Eve freedom was a kind of Get Out of Jail Free card, good for one use only. I didn't mind; my world was full. Whites, and the wide-open spaces they occupied, were not real somehow; for me, they only existed on TV, another place we couldn't live. We could watch, though, and I didn't aspire to more. I accepted these things as organic, like humidity and hand-me-downs, and took comfort in our close-knit, all-black world.

Holidays were my mother's especial forte. She spent the entire week leading up to one cooking. At Thanksgiving and Christmas, she got out that big cauldron of a cooking pot she only used for such occasions and started stuffing produce, little leafy sacrifices, into it. The greens varied enough to fill a botany text: mustard, turnip, spinach. Then she'd put in barrels of black-eyed peas, butter beans, and cabbage, and mounds of fatback, salt pork, and ham hocks to season the lot. Then, best of all, while the smell of roasting turkey insidiously infiltrated the house and trenchers of cornbread bubbled, Mama started peeling sweet potatoes into the big silver cook pot for sweet potato pie. That pot was big enough to cook Hansel and Gretel in; big enough to concoct a potion for spell-casting! Days passed as she peeled and peeled, humming her tuneless, bumpy dirges.

Book in hand, I glued myself to a kitchen chair. Hours went by as I watched her hands fly at their work yet still retain the precision of one deactivating a time bomb. After an indeterminate period, without warning, she stopped peeling, slicing, humming, and lined up the pie shells she'd prepared.

"Ma," I asked, "how many potatoes is that?"

"Hmmmm?" she murmured.

Cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla, coconut, whipped cream--the smells of the all-too-infrequent holidays. The smell of

Mama's magic.

"But, Ma," I asked, shivering and tingly at the cosmic forces swirling around us in the aromatic kitchen, "how you know when you done peeled enough?"

As usual, her repetitive motions had lulled her deep into a reverie and she didn't answer. Had she not learned how to detach herself and float away from her crowded home and its never-ending demands, she would never have had any privacy. She was smiling then about something, her hands momentarily still.

"Mama, what you listening to?"

The sound of wailing and warbling in some bizarre language rang tinnily forth from our raggedy radio. Daddy had found it mangled by the roadside and reinforced it with strapping tape all around; it looked mummified. A pale, sickly green, both its casing and its dial were thoroughly cracked. Most significantly, it had no knobs. To change the channel, you could either shake it just right or use a pair of pliers. In neither case could you control where you landed.