Martha King


Am Southern

The first Miles Davis I ever heard came drifting out of a window at Black Mountain College the summer of 1956. I was 18. Someone had set a record player up on the windowsill. "Kind of Blue" floated down through the dark trees. At Black Mountain, black American music from Leadbelly to Jelly Roll, from Duke to Parker was played incessantly and spoken about with passion-but there were no black students.
     I remember hearing that there had been black students, back in the 1940s, and that a black woman named Joy came a bit after I'd gone and took up with the sculptor John Chamberlain. The liaison might be just an old rumor, but Joy herself was real, I'm sure. I remember worrying how she'd fare. Black Mountain was in the heart of western North Carolina's poor-white South. It had never been plantation country up there; it had been pioneered as small subsistence farms, a handful of acres with one mule and the family's kids for labor. In 1956, "Nigger don't let the sun set on you here" was still firmly implied, if not actually mounted on a roadside sign board. It would have been a damned scary place for a lone black person, an educated person, a college student, with no protection from family or friends.
     The town of Black Mountain had no black neighborhood as did Chapel Hill or Durham or Lynchburg, Virginia. There were no black farmers out in the country driving busted trucks down the road or buying cold Dr. Peppers from the ice chests that were always placed strategically on the front porches of country stores. (So sales could be made without crossing Jim Crow.) There was no sense in western Carolina of a parallel life being lived by these other people, which a white teenager like me might glimpse like the thin line of light that leaks under a closed door.
     The dark people of western North Carolina were the Indians, native Americans, Cherokee. The target people were Indians. No one had ever heard of "native Americans." It was Indians to the back of the bus. Indians who were ragged, dirty, ignorant, and feared. But there must have been some black people over in the Maggie Valley, where the Cherokee reservation is, because the town of Cherokee actually had three water fountains in its public square: "White", "Colored", and "Indian."

Dark people of Western NC

On the Cherokee Indian reservation back in the day. The Cherokee never wore bonnets or lived in Plains-Indian teepees. My sister told me local men called spending the tourist season this way "chiefing."

Original dress was more like this.

The man with the letterboard is, of course, Sequoia, who developed a writing system for the Cherokee language. (Litho from a portrait painted in 1828 by Charles Bird King.)

Images courtesy of Free Archive of Native American Indian Pictures

     Indians obsessed Black Mountain students. They were objects of study and admiration. There were no American Indian students at the school either, and the people who were involved in anthropology never said "Indian"; they used the word "Amerindian." Almost everyone at Black Mountain had read Jaime d'Angelo, knew something about the painters Catlin and Bodmer, knew about trickster stories and Iroquois false-face societies. Many were fascinated by the transformation that had taken place as eastern tribes were squeezed west, found the horse, new in the sixteenth century, and became Plains Indians. I assume the source of this enthusiasm was Charles Olson. One of Ed Dorn's children was called Shawnee.
     Harvey Harmon, who lived down the hall from me the summer I spent at the school, could talk for hours about the cultures that the horse had made possible. He was pale and romantically listless and used to sit in the bathtub for hours with his books and his papers piled on a plank that fit across the tub. He was so often in there I routinely went downstairs, where the Dorn family lived, when I needed the bathroom. Wess Huss, school treasurer and theater teacher, who had worked Quaker service projects on several reservations, was not romantic. He spoke passionately about cultural rape. He told the theatre class about the U.S. government's Indian schools where kids were stripped of their language. I'm not sure what other outsiders knew about this in 1956. His white-blue eyes filled with anger describing the squalor and alcoholism that defined reservation life.

Lambert and Isabella both believed in genetic endowment; the nonmaterial inheritance that can't couldn't be lost in a depression. They also believed, sincerely, in a pyramid of human potential with white European males at the pinnacle. They somehow managed to reconcile this with their distinct aversion to injustice - in my father's case to embracing progressive New Deal politics that would lead surely to dissolving segregation along with ending lynch mobs. A glorious inconsistency allowed them to support co-educational policies at universities, for example, and Lambert's record in publishing, especially after he left New York to head the university press in Chapel Hill, was brilliant for its booklist of African American culture, history, and legacy. He believed his homeland would never be whole until changes came to pass that would end the Southern brain drain - the powerful drive to flee the South by the brightest and most talented men of either color.
     Still he never contradicted Isabella's pronouncements about the importance of "white" blood. Instead he liked to tweak critics of Southern segregation by telling stories about how hard it was to find a restaurant in New York City where he could take a black author if his guest wasn't wearing a turban or a dashiki. He didn't think the situation was good, not at all, but he liked those sanctimonious white Northern attitudes even less.
     I'd known black people all my life, so I thought. I grew up with black people! But to start with, I'd known women only, and some of their kids. I'd known women who needed the good opinion of their employers. I'd known Gracie in Miss Lot's kitchen; the ever-pregnant Viola in Aggie's. I'd known Pearl, who came up to New York City to live with us after my brother was born. For a time Pearl lived in the tiny maid's room off the kitchen in our apartment on East 86th Street. Then she got a place of her own. It was up on 135th Street - and I loved to hear her say it: "Hunrid-n-thudy-fiff-streed"-all run together, fast. It was Harlem, my father told me. It sounded glamorous. The address sounded like something the Andrews Sisters would sing on the radio station that Pearl always played.
     In the South of my childhood, black men were way in the distance, remote from a white child's world, or they were temporary, like the porters on the train that brought us South each summer. We were taught to say "colored." "Black" was rude and "Negro" was Northern, especially when pronounced with a long "E" that reeked of uptight unfamiliarity. "Nigger" was worse than rude. Only the ignorant ever said that word. Nice people never did - although all over the South the neighborhoods where black families lived were routinely referred to as "niggertown."
     Colored women were in all our kitchens and all our yards, and every week Aggie in Charlottesville or Miss Lot in Lynchburg would do their errands, which meant driving to various colored women's houses to drop off baskets of dirty laundry and pick up clean clothing, smelling of freshly ironed starch, to drop off mending and retrieve the neatly repaired, to buy someone's special watermelon pickle or someone else's sweet potato pie. Black children were always playing in the streets or on the porches and we, with whichever grandmother, stopped, and we would be admonished to say hi to the children and to yes-ma'm and no-ma'm their mothers.
     We white kids knew this to be fancy talk. Like behaving in church. Out from under adult oversight, the kids were clear about what was what. Colored people were dumb and dirty-and most of them smelled. Especially the men. And the men were dangerous or they were simpleminded, maybe both. They might have it in for you too. They might be carrying razors. Children joked about darkies and coons. They imitated funny words and accents. So why did these blunt talking kids have to mind their parents' colored maids just as I did mine? Didn't these dirty people cook their meals and clean up their houses? I had better sense than to ask.

Once afternoon, and without any preface that I remember, Lambert took me walking down Vinegar Hill in Charlottesville to the colored public park. It was noticeably more shabby than the regular park, with wide swatches of bare dust and scraggly grass. He and I stood at the edge of a very large crowd in which black men equaled or exceeded the number of women. There were men of all sizes and ages, all shades, pale amber, middle brown, dense black-chocolate dark. Some were dressed in startlingly black suits and white dress shirts. Others wore featureless coverings, long bereft of color or shape, and many more wore glistening overalls, with knife sharp creases ironed in-work clothes gussied up for a special occasion. The women wore hats but the men held theirs and wiped their openly sweating heads with large handkerchiefs.
     Lambert and I stood back, in a small puddle of shade provided by a spindly tree. We were in a kind of reverse halo of empty space, as people quietly stood back from us, not hostile, not welcoming, just a cautious withholding of recognition. We and this crowd heard a speaker, an old man with a long voice who stood on a platform way into the park and spoke without any amplification. No one had to strain to hear. His voice, somewhere between song and speech, carried over the crowd without seeming effort. I know now that I was witnessing a public oration of a type and style even then an anachronism - a holdover from a less industrial time.
     He said that a new time was coming for the colored peoples of the world. For the browns and the yellows, from China to Africa and yes, to these parts too. He said that colored people outnumbered white people by more than four to one and it was on their shoulders that the future of humanity rested. He asked his audience to prepare themselves and their children for this. This great change was inevitable. And it was a great responsibility. Some of the people who were nearest us glanced covertly to see how this was registering on a balding young white man and his small white daughter. The crowd received this speech with what might have been shock similar to my own. I remember hand clapping, lost a bit in the open air-but no great rhyming response, like the shouts that came out of black churches when a preacher was in full cry. As people in crowd began to move around, Lambert took my hand and walked me up the hill. He seemed pleased with himself, pleased to be the only white person in town with the curiosity to listen or the sheer nerve to accept the fact that this crowd actually existed. As he gravely walked me back to my grandma Aggie's house we didn't discuss the message we'd heard or why Lambert had wanted to hear it. Much later I wondered if we had heard W.E.B. DuBois, but I never asked.

It wasn't until I was living in New York City in the nineteen sixties that I found LeRoi Jones and A.B. Spellman, Bob Thompson, Archie Shep, Bill White.... It struck me then that these men were the actual grandchildren of the African-American women who had ruled all the kitchens and pantries I knew as a child. The family matriarchs they spoke about, like these women, brooked no sass from me or any other child. I imagined Roman matrons in the days of the Republic might have had as firm a conception of a right way and a wrong way. Woodland Avenue's white kids were rocked by their relentless bugeling calls to mind, come home, or stop doing something reckless or forbidden. Commanding but powerless. Where were their men? What happened to their boys? In truth, we all knew. We whites were black men's targets. We children, especially the girls, had to be guarded against them. It didn't have to be spelled out to us, the difference between black men and black women, though I don't remember a single hard look or threatening moment.
     In New York, LeRoi Jones told the story of his childhood in Newark this way. Roi's dad had to be spirited out of his South Carolina hometown when he was barely fourteen. He'd gone into the Whites-Only section of the town movie theater and sat down, and then he struggled, kicked, and managed to escape the white usher who came barreling down the aisle to throw him out. The outcome for the Jones' family was heartbreak but not death or injury. The family owned property, ran a store, and had standing in the black community. Arrangements were made immediately. The boy was hidden under a blanket and driven to the bus station in another town. There was money for bus fare. There was family in Newark who could take him in. His father didn't come South to visit for years but in Roi's childhood Roi was sent home - home from Yankee Newark to spend summer time in the old family homeground. My sibs and I were packed off too. Or taken by Isabella. Staying in New York City in summer time was unthinkable. Not done. Besides that, our crude Northern manners needed to be corrected and those horrid nasal accents! ("Lord help me, Lambert, that child sounds just like a Yankee!")
     In Lynchburg Big Gracie had a soft accommodating lap where comfort was casually dispensed to the children in Miss Lot's family. In Charlottesville, Viola was remote and dreamy, possibly relishing the quiet hours when my grandmother Aggie read, painted, or typed letters in her studio. Viola eventually had nine kids at home. In New York City, Pearl was skinny and wired. She treated problems with barbed humor. I loved her because she radiated competence where my mother would fret and fitter. My mother once remarked that she and Pearl were about the same age, which shocked me deeply. Isabella was a glamorous woman with glossy black hair and a rosy complexion. Pearl was as worn and wrinkled as an old yellow glove. My mother always explained the talents and accomplishments of black people in terms of tincture. White blood was involved, she'd inevitably instruct me. Certainly Pearl had amber eyes, and very pale brown skin. "Pearl is a Garth," my mother informed me, just as she and Aggie and we kids were. "Pearl knows who her people are."
     Pearl looked at me with cool assessing eyes. Not family pride but calculation. She was willing to talk if I was. But I was five, and how much could the two of us say? Her radio sang, "My Momma done tole me-a man is a two-face." The music and words ran faster and faster and until it left you beached, all alone with "Bloooooes in the night."
     Pearl had a grown son, and now I figure if she was my mother's age she must have been about 15 when he was born. "He's in the service," is all she said about him, not his name or where he was. And that only because I pestered her about his framed photograph on top of her bureau drawer. He wore a uniform jacket and tie, and a military hat with a hard front brim. I didn't actually know it was an officer's hat, but it impressed me anyway. Service men swarmed the commercial stretch of our neighborhood on East 86th Street from Lexington all the way over to Second Avenue. In caps or in hats, they were all white men.
     I never asked my mother.
     But now I wonder if I really did see silver wings on his jacket pocket. Could he have been a Tuskegee airman, and Pearl never said a word?

In the distance

The men were far away, in the distance, out in the fields.

I went to summer camp. So did these boys. But we white kids knew nearly nothing about them or their lives.

Tuskegee airman Alexander Jefferson. Photo collected by George Lucas for the making of Red Tails.

W.E.B. DuBois cutting cake for his 95th birthday in Ghana, 1963.

Images courtesy of TruthandRights forum