Banned Book Club by Kim Hyun Sook, Ko Hyung-Ju, and Ryan Estrada is the true story of Hyun Sook’s years as a South Korean college student under the brutal military regime of the early 1980s.
Although the campus has erupted with violent student protests against the government, Hyun Sook, an apolitical freshman enthralled with literature and books, is uninvolved and fearful of her mother who disapproves of the protests and is dubious about her being in college at all. Hyun Sook is thrilled when she meets the handsome editor of the school’s student newspaper, who invites her to join his book club. But instead of discussing Moby Dick in a cafe, Hyun Sook finds herself, and her fearless pro-democracy book club classmates, forced into hiding under threat of arrest (or worse) by a repressive government.
Hyun Sook’s irresistible memoir conveys her political and social awakening with equal measures of hilarity and terror, as her eyes are opened to the brutal nature of the military regime. In this 11-page excerpt, Hyun Sook meets the members of the Banned Book Club who will transform her life as a student and as a citizen.
Banned Book Club will be published in April by Iron Circus Comics.
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.
Banned Book Club by Kim Hyun Sook, Ko Hyung-Ju, and Ryan Estrada is the true story of Hyun Sook’s years as a South Korean college student under the brutal military regime of the early 1980s.
Big Black: Stand at Attica is the memoir of Frank “Big Black” Smith, a prisoner-negotiator during the Attica prison revolt, and a grim history of one of the bloodiest rebellions in the history American prisons.
More than 1,200 Attica inmates took control of the prison in September 1971, captured 42 guards as hostages, denounced the facility’s brutal conditions, and called for more humane treatment of prisoners. On Sept. 13, 1971, New York governor Nelson Rockefeller ordered hundreds of armed state troopers to retake the facility by force in a brutal invasion that resulted in the deaths of 29 prisoners and 10 guards. Over the course of the assault, state troopers killed unarmed prisoners and hostages alike, and in the immediate aftermath, prisoners, among them Frank Smith, were viciously beaten for days on end.
Although the events at Attica forced the state to change prison practices, the uprising has come to represent the legacy of mass incarceration, a scourge that has devastated communities of color.
A man of intelligence and character, Smith (who died in 2004) was respected by inmates and guards. He survived sadistic reprisals at the hands of state troopers—though he suffered the effects of his torture for years afterwards—was released, and went on to serve as an advocate and counselor for prisoners and former inmates.
What follows is a 15-page excerpt from Big Black: Stand at Attica, out this month from Archaia.
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.
Publishers Weekly, in its starred review, called the book an “impressionistic memoir of growing up as an undocumented immigrant,” adding that “Castillo writes with disturbing candor, depicting the all-too-common plight of undocumented immigrants to the U.S.”
[Fourth Movement as Language]
I got used to the roaches, I got used to the milk crates we used as chairs as we ate a pot of boiled beans and washed them down with black coffee for dinner. I was five, and we had just moved into our first apartment in the U.S., and though it was small, it still felt larger than our house back in Mexico. It certainly felt larger than the room we all crammed into at our uncle’s house when we first arrived, care- ful not to be too much of a burden, though it was hard not to be when a family of seven suddenly moves in. Amá’s belly was large, and she was due to give birth any day. Although our new apartment wasn’t much to look at, we could scream, we could jump, and no one could say anything to us because it was ours.
We had one spoon. Or maybe it was one spoon for each person, so it still felt like one spoon. Amá rubbed her large belly and spread her legs as she crouched down to eat off an old bedside table. Everyone argued over what the new baby would be named. “It’s my baby, I’m going to name him whatever I want,” said Amá. Apá had named ev- ery child up until then, but Amá knew this would be her last, and she was determined to name him herself. When she gave birth, she kept the onesie the hospital put on the baby even though she was supposed to give it back because she didn’t have a lot of clothes for him yet. She had a joke that the baby was made in Mexico but shipped, assembled, and delivered in the U.S. She came home with her baby in her arms and told us his name was Gilberto.
Every night was the same. I didn’t like the taste of coffee, but Amá held the cup to my mouth and said to drink, that it would help. Help with what? We each cleaned our respective bowl, cup, and spoon. I took the drying cloth and made small circles with my hand until my bowl was dry and shiny. We were poor, but we were clean. The dishes were placed upside down over a towel so “nothing” would touch them at night.
“Beans again?” I said to Amá as we gathered around our bed- side table, sitting on our milk crates in the middle of our small living room.
“Yes, now, don’t complain,” she said. She wasn’t speaking in En- glish, and although I didn’t know English at the time, my memories of those days are peppered in English now. My mother handed me a taza, not a cup; she poured café, not “coffee.” Amá’s loud call to come in from playing outside was Ya vente, not “Come in now.” But in my head, I see a “cup,” I see her handing me a “cup,” and the “cup” is now in English even though no one is speaking.
I have to work to put the Spanish words inside my memories— I have to think hard about each syllable inside them. To this day my mother still does not know English, though she is trying to learn it. Apá understands a little but can’t speak it.
It was around this time, in kindergarten, when I first became aware of another language, a language I didn’t know. There was something twisting in someone’s mouth, not the kinds of words I was familiar with. A distance started to grow between me and the world, and I gladly walked toward the torpid shores of its strangeness. As we sat crisscross apple sauce, the music teacher at my first American school sat on a chair in front of us, rattling a steady rhythm with two spoons between his fingers. I understood the music because I clapped, we were all clapping along to his beat, some of us singing, others not.
The spoons vibrated like a rattlesnake’s tail in front of me. I knew what music was and I liked it, bobbing the small frame of my body from side to side. But the strangest and most arresting sound of all was coming out of his mouth, which was nothing that I had ever heard before. I knew the sounds, I knew the rhythms, and even the gestures on his face that accompanied them as he nodded his head up and down. I could tell all of those things together were meant to produce some kind of happiness. I could make those sounds, but not in that order. I thought he sounded funny, so I let out a small giggle in the middle of his song, which prompted a stern look from the teacher keeping watch over us on the side. She must have thought I was mocking the song or the teacher, but I loved them both be- cause despite not understanding them, I understood them differently. I liked the way that rattler kept shaking right above me, saying what most rattlers say with their thrashing tails, “Don’t come near me, I am dangerous, I will bite you.”
Maybe one day English would be dangerous for me, but not in that moment, tapping my small palms on my lap, looking at the song behind the children’s song, the flurry of sounds looming above the spoons saying something that must have been happy, given the ex- pressions on the teacher’s face, a kind of joy that felt like home to me, a kind of joy that made sense, that reminded me of home.
I ran home elated, carrying that small pocket of joy like a wild mongoose whose belly was full of snake, whose teeth were smeared with blood.
“Amá, I want to be a musician when I grow up,” I said. “That’s wonderful, mijo, now go take off your shirt so I can cut your hair,” she said. I wondered if she had heard me. She cut our hair often because she said her children would not go around looking ragged.
“Amá, I said I want to be a musician when I grow up.” I said again, that time louder. Still, she didn’t seem to pay much attention. Maybe I shouldn’t have stressed the music but what carried the music— I should have said I wanted to build violins.
I stood on a chair near the window, watching the neighborhood kids playing outside without me as Amá moved the clipper up and down my head. I started rambling to them through the open window in what I thought was my newly acquired English. I wanted to repeat what I had just heard in music class, but I wanted to do it without the music— without the spoons. It wasn’t really anything coherent, but Amá says it had the effect of being discursive, as if I was standing at a podium addressing a throng of people below me. I waved my hands in the air, gesticulating, giving them instructions in this new language that I was certain they could understand but that they most certainly couldn’t.
They laughed and I laughed with them because we were children and because that was what children did. We took refuge in our mis- understanding. I rambled on, trying to make any kind of sound that wasn’t a word that I recognized because anything that wasn’t Span- ish automatically meant that it was English. English was the “other.” Amá finished cutting my hair, not without protest that I was moving too much for her to steady her hand, and I finished my long speech, even though my friends had long since stopped paying attention. I felt like I had done something good.
I bowed politely in my chair and went out to the yard again.
In my head, I knew what I was saying, there was meaning be- hind my squawk. It was in that very short window of time, when I could speak in that primal language between languages, that I could understand things better— clearer. Perhaps I never really left and was always moving back and forth between languages, reaching for something I would never fully attain.
The afternoon was warm, and the sun wouldn’t start making its eventual retreat over the mountains for another few hours. Amá went to the kitchen to put another pot of beans on to boil. Beans were still beans, there was nothing new about that, there was nothing that needed translation, I could move back and forth with relative ease.
With time, that innocent wonder at my nonlanguage would slowly start to fade and be replaced by English, which would soon mostly replace Spanish. In no time I would find myself sitting crisscross apple sauce just like the other children, bored at yet another music lesson, sedated, singing along to words that were reduced to one thing and one thing only. Music would again just be music and words just words. I would never again reach that wandering calamity of sound, that cacophonous revelry. I’m sure that wasn’t the first time I ever heard English being spoken, but it was the first time I remember being aware of it in any meaningful way.
I loved being bilingual, but there was something special in that moment of utter confusion. The short journey from Spanish to English was a revelry, a reverie that deflated like balloons shortly after the party has ended. It was a path on which I moved, another migration. My body had already reached the U.S., but my tongue was a bit slower getting there, taking its time, hopping from rock to rock like a small mountain cat. I stuck out my skinny tongue and hissed at everyone around me.
The path to learning English wasn’t like a pig being taken to slaughter. Pigs know what’s at the other end of that long walk to the slaughterhouse, and they fight tooth and nail to escape. Their long and deep howls seem to come from somewhere beyond their body, from the very earth itself— almost demonic. I didn’t fight; I didn’t know what was at the other end, but I ran toward it with open arms nonetheless.
Amá stirred the pot of beans one more time and announced that they were ready. We grabbed our spoon, and our bowl, and our coffee. How unbearably boring the world would soon be. In that moment, though, I was an oracle, I was enchanted, I was enchanting. The bean broth was hot as it slowly went down my throat, as it touched that part of me that had no name yet.
From Children of the Land by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo. Used with the permission of Harper. Copyright © 2020 by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo.
Originally published in 2007, The PLAIN Janes by Cecil Castellucci and Jim Rugg is the story of teenage misfit artist Jane Beckels, who is forced to leave fictional Metro City—a clear stand-in for New York—after a terrorist attack.
Her parents move to the suburbs for safety. Jane hates her new suburban town until she meets a group of also not-so-popular high school girls also named Jane (Theater Jane, Brain Jayne, and Polly Jane, the girl jock). They band together to create an anonymous guerrilla art collective: People Loving Art In Neighborhoods—The PLAIN Janes.
The book’s new hardcover edition combines the original two volumes with a third previously unpublished volume. In this 11-page excerpt from the new section, the girls are distracted by their imminent graduation from high school. They’ve also been forced to trade their previously exciting, unsanctioned guerrilla art attacks for nice but lackluster city-approved projects in the park. The PLAIN Janes was published this month by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.
Our series of poetry excerpts continues with a poem from Your New Feeling Is the Artifact of a Bygone Era, the new collection by Chad Bennett. Bennett begins his poem with lines from an unpublished interview from the early 1960s between Warhol and the art critic David Bourdon. The interview proper begins with a Warholian question for Bourdon: “Am I really doing anything new?” Bennett is able to channel that particular magic and mystery of Warhol as he inhabits his persona in this poem.
“Andy Warhol”[Unpublished interview, 1962]
I don’t want to know whothe father of this movementis. In those Shirley Templemovies, I was so disappointedwhenever Shirley found herfather. It ruined everything.She had been having such agood time, tap dancing withthe local Kiwanis Club orthe newspaper men in the cityroom. Those newspaper men,who want everything ruined,don’t want to know whoruined it. So in the city I wasa good Shirley Temple, dancingwith men in the club, or withthis local in a room in the city.
Who was it who was withthose men? Who had the time?The city? (Was I in the city?)It disappointed those in the knowwho so want to know who isor was or had been having who isor was or had been dancing.The city was a ruined temple, ora temple of ruined time,I don’t know. Whenever I hadthe time I know I was good, orfound I had been. In time,I ruined everything. Father,I found the movies.
Copyright 2019 Sarabande Books/Chad Bennett. All rights reserved. Posted here with permission of Sarabande Books.
Our series of poetry excerpts continues with a poem from Little Envelope of Earth Conditions, the new collection by Cori A. Winrock. Her lines loll with the rhythm of grief: “I wake to bury / you again, stumbling // for the rotary receiver on its vine— / swinging from the wall of a house.” A synthesis of delight and delirium; memory and mourning.
+All By Myself I am a Huge Camellia +
Some days no one is my motherbut my mother. & my mother is no
longer a distance that cinches itself—the flush on flush of the new
fever, the baby’s first floral-heat nursed down—with a telephone
call. I could not gather, could notcollect your voice in fits
in tinder in sleep. So the flowerbeds:empty. The endless ringing: all hesitation,
no digging. I wake to buryyou again, stumbling
for the rotary receiver on its vine—swinging from the wall of a house
I left burning small: votivelight throwing off no sound.
In the yard the petals all flame& lantern. In the crib
my daughter moro-s herselfin heartbeat cycles, limbs sparked
apart with shock. The smoke of us bothrises: like a moon: like a pulse. & I am
alone in our surveillance, our time-lapsed fevering burst into a single bloom
: the resurrected echo-light of your ambulancedissolving through the walls.
“+ All By Myself I am a Huge Camellia +” from Little Envelope of Earth Conditions by Cori A. Winrock, Alice James Books, 2020.
Our series of poetry excerpts continues with a poem from I Offer My Heart as a Target/Ofrezco mi corazón como una diana by Johanny Vázquez Paz, translated by Lawrence Schimel.
Paz offers a lament of identity and appearance; the recurring usage of “they”—both displaced and omnipresent—suggests the narrator’s feeling that her light skin and hair are seen as a curse. She is a “discordant note:” unwanted and unwelcome.
They saythat I don’t look like what I ammy white skin lonely cloud in a shady skymy hair rays of a Nordic sunmy hips narrow lacking substance and sugar.
They saythat I pronounce words differentlymy diction is too properwithout changing my arr or dropping my essesvery Castilian and beyond mockery.
They saythat I don’t represent the folklore of the peoplethe patriotic symbols, the plátano stainnot even my people recognize me as a daughter;I’m the enigma of a badly conceived graft.
They call me milkman’s daughtergüera, gringa, polacaglass of milk, Casper the Ghostdiscordant note, alien beingthe white sheep in a coppery herd.
“Milkman’s Daughter” is excerpted from I Offer My Heart as a Target/Ofrezco mi corazón como una diana, copyright 2019 by Johanny Vázquez Paz, translated from Spanish by Lawrence Schimel. All rights reserved. Used with permission of the author and Akashic Books (akashicbooks.com).
The novel—named one of the Best Books to Read This Winter by Vogue—earned praise for Victor LaValle, who said: “Africaville turns history into an engaging family story, one that begins in Nova Scotia and then travels across North America. It’s a gripping and moving book. Jeffrey Colvin writes with such affection and authority. I thought of the fine work of Esi Edugyan and Edward P. Jones and E.L. Doctorow, too. He deserves to be counted in their number and this is an excellent debut.”
Nova Scotia, 1918
Newborns are never afflicted with the malady. The swollen tongue, the reddish throat, the raw cough seem to afflict only babies older than six months. By the spring, in the village situated on a small knuckle-shaped peninsula just north of Halifax, all five of the stricken babies have now developed a high fever.
Having no luck with sweet milk and lemon bitter, worried mothers administer castor oil mixed with camphor, then a tea of beer’s root steeped with beech ash and clover. When desperate, they even place a few charms under the mattresses of the beds where the stricken babies lie crying.
In mid-April, with three more babies now suffering from the malady, health department nurses visit the village, their faces frozen even before they have examined a single new case. Why our children? several mothers standing in the yard of one house want to know. Hadn’t Halifax already given enough babies in the fire that leveled ten square blocks of the city months before, when the munitions ship exploded in the harbor? Then again, those had been white babies. No colored babies had died in that explosion. Was it now Woods Bluff’s turn to lose infants? And if so, how many—five, ten, all twenty-two?
The following week, after two of the feverish babies die, the mothers turn to the grandmothers, though many are leery of this option. Already several grandmothers have suggested that since the home remedies haven’t worked, and since neither nurse nor doctor has useful medicines, the afflicted infants must be bad-luck babies.
It is an expression the mothers haven’t heard since they were children, though the fear of having a bad-luck baby has terrorized mothers on the bluff as far back as 1790. That was the year the first groups of cabins sprang up across the bluff, displacing the foxes, hare, and moose that ran through the thick Christmas ferns and sheep laurel. Back when no medicine could reinvigorate a baby whose body had begun to show the outline of bones, smothering was sometimes recommended. Take no action, and bad luck might infect the entire village. Best to end the child’s suffering midday, when injurious spirits would likely be bedside, feeding on the moisture of a weak baby’s last breaths.
Yet several mothers are unconvinced the deceased infants are bad-luck babies.
And even if the now-suffering babies are saddled with bad luck, who’s to say those old tales of smothering are true? Had anyone actually seen a mother place a blanket or pillow over a child’s face? And most important for these new cases: by what evidence will we make the diagnosis?
The grandmothers have ready answers. For several descendants of the Virginian who came up to Nova Scotia in 1772 as a messenger in the British army, a feverish baby had to be put to sleep if its father had recently had a limb severed above the knee or elbow. Death was also imminent if the baby’s fever came during the same month as the mother’s birthday. For the granddaughter of the Congolese woman who, in 1785, dressed as a man, sailed into Halifax Harbour on a ship out of Lisbon, Portugal, a feverish baby had to be smothered if the newborn was smaller than a man’s hand.
And for the largest group of grandmothers, those descended from the nearly two hundred Jamaicans who landed in Halifax Harbour in 1788 after being expelled by British soldiers from their island villages for fomenting rebellion, a feverish baby’s fate was sealed if the child coughed up blood during the same month a traveling man arrived on your stoop selling quill turpentine, goat leather, or gunpowder. Hadn’t such a vendor made the rounds in Woods Bluff the month before? Why continue to nurse such a child? Death already had a square toe on the baby’s throat. It was only a matter of days, a week maybe, if the baby were a girl.
The mothers nod as they listen to the explanations, but over the next weeks only one baby is smothered, although Lovee Mills denies doing it. Near the beginning of May, however, another mother on the bluff seriously considers taking the grandmothers’ advice about ending her baby’s suffering. Her afflicted child is the cousin of the first baby that developed the fever. Adding to the mother’s exasperation are the noisy groups of neighbors that have been gathering outside her home each day at sunset, a few of them knocking on the door and asking outright if the bad-luck baby had been relieved of its worldly suffering.
By now the malady has a name. It refers to the style of cabin where the woman and her extended family live. A dogtrot cabin’s construction— two rooms connected by a short breezeway in the middle—had confounded the villagers for years. Some suspected the man who built the cabin wanted a reminder of his home in Virginia. But a breezeway in a dwelling in Nova Scotia? Pure stupidity.
And now living in the cabin has caused two babies to get sick. Many blame the parents and the other members of the large extended family that lives there. Tight living made sense in 1782, they say, but this is 1918. If parents, grown children, and grandchildren are going to continue to jungle up in quarters that tight, what was the use of leaving prison? Even in the best families, sleeping foot to head too long breeds animosity. And if lies, jealousy, and ill will erupt easily in close quarters, why not a virulent fever?
“Will she do it?” someone in the crowd that has arrived at the dogtrot cabin this evening asks.
“If you mean smother the child, she had better,” another replies. “Or else one of us will.”
The cabin’s odd construction had also puzzled several of the rebellious Jamaicans who arrived in Halifax Harbour in 1788. Of course, by the time they first saw the odd dwelling, their minds had been addled by two years of confinement in the military prison on the western edge of Halifax. It took that long before Canadian military commanders believed they had sorted out which of the prisoners were combatants or abettors, and which were mere residents of the Jamaican villages torched by British soldiers.
The wait had been a horror in the cramped underground magazine and provisions spaces.
Eighty-two prisoners were moved to cells aboveground. From this group, squads of men were conscripted to repair damaged sections of the Citadel, help guard the city against French soldiers raiding its perimeter, and do road repair. One warm October day, a group of men on a road detail snuck off to walk the foot trails of Woods Bluff.
Most of the men had heard by then that the money being sent from London and Jamaica to house the prisoners had slowed to a trickle. With no firm offer yet from the government of Sierra Leone to accept them and their families, the men walked the trails looking for the cabin where military officials said a few families would soon be offered housing.
The first two families released from prison and driven by mule wagon out to the bluff never learned what happened to the family from Virginia that had lived there. But with the almanac predicting a heavy snowstorm within the week, they set about gathering dried grass and mud and fieldstones to repair the roof, chink the gaps in the logs, and mend the chimney. The men and women had their freedom. But they were facing a winter on their own in a cold, unfamiliar place. To them, this oddly built cabin seemed a present from God.
With the fever threatening another baby, villagers in 1918 have a different view of the dogtrot cabin. After hearing that the infant suffering inside the dwelling was not smothered but died on its own, they want nothing more to do with the cabin. Fearful that it is harboring bad air that might kill another baby, they chase out the families living there and set the cabin ablaze.
But what had their actions accomplished, the villagers wonder one afternoon in June, when word spreads that little Kath Ella Sebolt, who lives at 68 Dempsey Road, has developed the fever.
By now seven babies have died.
Fearing her daughter might be the eighth child to die of the fever, Kath Ella Sebolt’s mother, Shirley, goes in search of the handmade dolls she had purchased the previous winter. All ten of the dolls made by the neighborhood leatherworker were imitations of the Lucky Beatrice doll that had been fought over by a platoon of fathers in a pistol-shooting contest at the most recent Pictou County Exposition. What can it hurt, Shirley Sebolt figures, to slide her daughter’s doll under the bed where her daughter suffers?
That evening Kath Ella’s fever breaks. The next morning Shirley carries the doll to a house down the road. The next afternoon, similar dolls are slipped under other beds all across the village.
“Could be the fever just tired itself out,” George Sebolt tells a neighbor visiting with the news that his previously ailing infant has sucked down a full bottle of milk. “And maybe the nurses are bringing better medicine.”
“No,” Shirley insists. “That lucky doll under the bed did the trick.”
© Africaville by Jeffrey Colvin Amistad Books/HarperOne
Our series of poetry excerpts continues with a poem from The War Makes Everyone Lonely, the debut collection from Graham Barnhart.
In “Somnambulant,” moments of precision—”white sheets turned down // to standard,” a “perfect perforated line”—contrast with the dizzying dullness of military exhaustion: the body ready, the body worn down. Barnhart, a veteran who served as an Army Special Forces medic, creates a tense world that burns into memory.
The barracks was Army-green wooland white sheets turned down
to standard, six inches below the pillow,a perfect perforated line
across every gray bunk frameto the gray lockers lining the walls
and blocking the windows.At night, the moon passed
through seams between the lockers,flashing like a film reel
if you walked the dark roomfast enough. Now and then
on fire watch, when you were walking,and the moon was flashing,
and the sheets were disheveledby the sleepers, someone might jump
to attention, for some dreamt ofdrill sergeant screaming.
I told her all of this when she found mestanding in the bedroom doorway.
Just order me back to bed.We’ll laugh about it in the morning—she laughed then too.
From The War Makes Everyone Lonely by Graham Barnhart. © 2019 by The University of Chicago. Reproduced by permission.
In our latest edition of featured nonfiction, we present an excerpt from National Book Award finalist Susan Straight’s new novel, In the Country of Women, out now from Catapult.
The book—which is part social history, part personal narrative—earned praise from The New York Times Book Review, with Kristal Brent Zook saying: “In the end, Straight’s book is about far more than a country of women. It’s an ode to the entire multiracial, transnational tribe she claims as her own…In fact, her words are for all those who now call her mother, aunt, cousin and sister, in the neighborhood where she has lived her entire life. And for all those who survived, so these women could live.”
Daisy Belle: Sunflower County, Mississippi, 1915
You so fine I might just have to kill you. Some other fool is gonna take you away, and I can’t have that. Family legend: This is what Daisy’s first husband said to her, holding the gun he kept on the small table beside their bed.
Alberta, my mother-in-law, told me the story of her own mother, Daisy, only once, and it was not until after I had my first daughter. Alberta was Daisy’s third daughter, named for Daisy’s sister. We were sitting knee to knee by the massive ochre-brick fireplace in the fall, when Gaila was four months old. In the living room that was never empty, we were alone that day at lunchtime, on my break from work, while I nursed the baby. Alberta was watching the damp black curls of my daughter, glistening with heat from the flames, her head lolling back and a drop of milk near the corner of her mouth as she fought sleep. Gaila, the fourth generation of descendants from Mary Thomas Ford, killed for secrets.
“My mother never had a home when she was little. Not after her mother died.”
She paused. My mother-in-law’s hands were elegant, her nails strong and oval and painted, her eyebrows vivid with pencil, her lips always defined with liner and lipstick. We were sitting in maroon leather club chairs whose arms were rolled and graceful, with brass rivets. Alberta said softly, “They were walking down a road. Her and her mother. Mary. She was holding her mother’s hand. My grandmother saw the car coming. She threw my mother out of the way, threw her up where no one could see her, and then the car ran her over.”
The driver was a young white man with another young white male passenger; the car plowed into Mary Thomas at great speed and then the driver swerved back onto the road and left her behind. Mary had three children – Daisy, 5, Arthur, 2, and Alberta, 1. It makes sense that only Daisy was walking with her, because the others were so young, but no one can say for certain. The three children had been given the surname of their father: Ford. But no one ever mentions him again, either.
This part stays the same, no matter who tells the story: it was dusk, and suddenly a car was speeding down the narrow dirt lane, raising dust, careening toward them, and Mary knew what was coming, and why, and she threw Daisy up onto the roadbank into the trees, or in the ditch into the weeds.
That day by the fire, Alberta said sadly, “My mother was so little. And after that, she went from pillar to post. Yes, she did. Pillar to post.”
Alberta held out her arms for the baby. I had to go back to work, and Alberta would hold her for hours while a procession of women came to visit and watch soap operas and share food and stories and rock this grandchild who was so loved that her cheeks would be red with kisses and lipstick when I came to retrieve her at 5.
I didn’t understand the phrase – pillar to post. Alberta watched my daughter relax back into sleep against her elbow, eyelids sliding shut. She said, “My mother never had a home. Not ’til she got here.”
Pillar to post: when someone has gone from a wealthy home, with pillars at the front, as grand embellishment, to a poorer house, with porch held up by simple wooden posts. But in Sunflower County, Daisy went from farmhouse to sharecropper cabin, wherever relatives would take care of her for a time. Alberta went to Mary’s sister Margaret, and Arthur went to an uncle. Daisy attended school until the fifth grade, as did Arthur.
That night, I lay awake thinking of the car speeding straight toward Daisy’s mother while her small daughter lay on the roadbank. I remember the Country Squire passing over me like a large animal. I remember the smell of damp asphalt against my cheek. I shivered, wondering what Daisy’s mother felt. She lay in soft Mississippi dirt. Did she die there, with her daughter afraid to come out from where she’d been thrown for safekeeping? Did Mary hear her child crying?
Did she crawl? Did Daisy see her mother’s eyes?
Years later, at family gatherings, other relatives would offer:
They were drunk and they killed her, but they were rich white boys and no one in that county was gonna prosecute them.
They were sent to kill her because she knew things. About the rich white men around there. They didn’t want her to tell.
They killed her because no one wanted her to say who were the fathers of those children. Daisy and Arthur and Alberta. Mary was the prettiest of all the girls. She was beautiful.
There were only about six cars in the whole county – it was a poor place! The police knew whose car it was. Of course they did.
Imagine Daisy’s memory, of her small body being flung by her mother’s hands to safety, and where she landed, and how it felt. What she saw and heard after that. It’s beyond comprehension: did the men stop and look at Mary Thomas? Was Daisy so scared she knew to keep hidden in the trees or the weeds? Did she breathe? Did she hear her mother’s breath? Did she hear pain or crying? How long did she wait by the roadside, and who drove the next vehicle or wagon that came upon them, and what never left her memory?
Violence like that enters the blood. Changes the DNA. We know this now, from accounts of survivors of genocide, of the Holocaust, of war and torture and imprisonment. Reading historical narratives from the elderly people formerly enslaved in the American South, in places like Sunflower County, Mississippi, reminds us of how injury, rape, and psychological pain were endured, and interred, in the bones and brain.
Some Americans have tried to make slavery a single chapter in the nation’s history, a finite number of years that ceases influence at the end of the Civil War. Tell this to the family of Mary Thomas, and the thousands of other black men and women killed in carefully-planned acts of retribution or for casual sport – from the moment the Emancipation Proclamation was read, through the terrors of Reconstruction, to the countless lynchings between 1900-1950s, to the murders during the civil rights movement, to killings that happen right now. This moment.
By 1989, when Alberta told me that story, her mother, Daisy, had travelled through seven states to make sure Alberta’s childhood was rooted deeply and firmly in a radius of three miles, and we sat in the center of that radius. But Daisy’s odyssey had been long and dangerous, and at the end of it, she had four daughters, and endless secrets.
Daisy Belle Ford Morris Carter remains the mystery woman of our family. We still talk even now about how she never told anyone the identities of the fathers of her daughters. In a time when every pair of high heels chosen for the club, every new hairstyle or cup of coffee is documented in cell phone images with time, date, and exact street location, it seems astonishing that the phrase “she took that knowledge to the grave” could be true. Over six decades, Daisy never told anyone. Maybe those men were so dangerous she knew what she was doing.
And so, so my three daughters, I want to say that these women crossed thousands of miles of hardship so that when I was fourteen and your father was fifteen, he could walk two miles from his house to the end of my street — no one had cars, no one had any money for a date, we met only in parks — where he bounced a basketball in the playground of my elementary school. I walked there to meet him. We sat on the wooden bench against the chainlink fence that separated the playground from the railroad tracks twenty feet away. His shirt: white waffle-weave long underwear with the sleeves cut off for a tank top. I remember the smell of freshly-laundered cotton and Hai Karate even now. My shirt: a halter top I’d sewn from two red bandannas, from a pattern I found in Seventeen magazine. We talked for a long time in the darkness, played a few games of H-O-R-S-E (I wondered why it was always horse and never something more entertaining, like platypus or elephant or anaconda), and returned to the splintery bench. We kissed for the first time.
His arms were the color of palm bark – brown with a glossy red underneath — and his fingers so long and elegant that when he put my palm against his, my whole hand barely came to the middle knuckles. My arms should have been pale, but this was 1975 – girls rubbed Johnson’s baby oil onto their skin and lay at the beach or beside pools to get brown. I had the baby oil – but no beach or pool. I mowed lawns and lay in the bed of my dad’s truck while he drove us to the desert.
Your father pointed to the dark-brown dot on the skin below my collarbone. “What’s that?” he said quietly.
Was I supposed to say mole? Mole sounded terrible. A blind animal nosing out of the earth. I was so near-sighted I could barely see the playground, because I’d left my glasses at home. “Beauty mark?” I said.
He laughed. “That’s if you paint it on your face.”
“All my aunts.”
I remember too the smell of sulfur in the rocks along the railroad tracks, and the pepper trees nearby with their spicy pink berries.
Thousands of miles of migration – from slave ships arrived to America, from boats leaving Europe after World War II, from indigenous peoples, enslaved peoples, hardened ranchwomen, and fierce mothers. The women moved ever west, fled men, met new men, made silent narrow-eyed decisions in the darkness, got on buses and in cars and walked for miles to survive. West until there was no more west.
We were born here, to more dreamers of the golden dream, the ones you never hear about. We moved through the streets of southern California, still with no money, but we had more than those women did when they were girls. We shared one burrito four ways, we rode eight to a car in a Dodge Dart or Ford pickup, we partied in the orange groves or in a field by the towering cement Lily Cup, where our friends’ parents worked at the plant making paper cups that Americans used to hold at the water cooler.
More than a year later, your father finally picked me up in the Batmobile, a 1961 Cadillac with vintage oxidized brown like faded coffee ground, with huge fins as if sharks would chaperone us down the street. The sound was like a freight train. Sitting in the passenger seat, I saw a dark stain along the inside of the door. It was cold, and I asked your father to roll up the window, but he didn’t want me to see the spiderweb cracks around the bullet hole in the glass. Some guy had been leaning against the car window when he was shot. The stains were reminders of his blood. General Sims II, your grandfather, had bought the car from under a pepper tree where it had sat since the murder, covered in California dust. Your father drove me a mile and a half, to General and Alberta’s house, and in the driveway Alberta held out her hand and said, Come and make you a plate, and my life changed.
That is how you, our three daughters, became California girls. Via the Batmobile. You are the apex of the dream, the future of America, and nearly every day of my life I imagine the women watching you, watching all of us as we raised you, hoping they — the ancestors — won’t be forgotten.
Copyright © 2019 by Susan Straight, from In the Country of Women. Excerpted by permission of Catapult.