Fighting for rights

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A man, close to the front, pumped his fist. “My wife don’t have time for more learning. We got six kids needing supper on the table.”

A melee of querulous male voices erupted from the crowd.

“Why do women prostitute themselves to the abnormal passion of man?” Miss Fisher continued. “Because they are poverty-stricken, destitute above temptation and driven by necessity. They sell themselves, in marriage or out, for bread and shelter, for the necessities of life. How can we blame them? They have no other recourse but to live in a society that dictates what they, we, can and cannot do. To solve this problem, we demand that women be allowed to exercise their inherent, personal, citizen’s right to be a voice in the government, municipal, state, and national. Then, women will have the power to protect themselves.”

“We men protect our women just fine,” a voice shouted. Other men shouted their agreement.

Mayor Hicks stepped to the podium, his lips pursed. “Enough of your heckling. Save your disagreements for editorials in the newspapers. She has a right to free speech.”

“So do we,” someone boomed back.

The mayor banged a fist on the podium. “These women are invited guests. By God, we will show them our southern Hospitality.”

The raw egg came from nowhere. It narrowly missed the Mayor’s head before landing on the bandstand floor. He squinted, searching the crowd.

Poor Mrs. Fenwick held a shaky hand over her mouth.

Miss Fisher reached below the dais and pulled out a speaking trumpet. “The true relation of the sexes can never be attained until women are free and equal with man,” she continued, her determination thundering above the chaos.

The second egg hit the podium dead center.

Excerpt from The Last Bordello

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Separate but (not treated) Equal

After Isaac puts the Pontiac in neutral and maneuvers it out on the driveway, he asks me to hand him a screwdriver. He tightens some do-ma-hickey then replaces the battery with the one he picked up at the local auto part’s store.

“You sure know a lot about a lot of things, Isaac Ford,” I tell him. “And don’t dare say anything stupid like, ‘so you think I’m smarter than the average colored boy.’”

“I read a lot. And my mama teaches at my school. The Academy for Black Youth in case you’re wondering.”

“We don’t have any Negros in my school. Not because they can’t come but because most of them live across town.”

“Separate but Equal,” he says, shaking his head.

I think of my summer reading assignment — A Separate Peace.

“Thing is, Chicken Coop. I want to make something of myself. But for the life of me, I can’t figure out how. I can’t play music, I don’t want to be a preacher—”

“Then do something else. Be a mechanic. Be a teacher. Be whatever you want.”

“Okay. I’ll be a surgeon. After they let me in a university because of my a-Maze-ing chemistry and biology grades, I graduate. Then, I look for a job that will hire a colored surgeon. And, if I’m lucky enough to land that job, white folks will say, ‘I don’t want some colored boy operating on me.’ Then, I’m back where I started. Without a job.”

“You’re so cynical, Isaac.”

“Cynical?” He points a finger at my chest. “You know nothing. Nothing! What do I have to be cheery-faced about? Huh? That I can fix a goddam car? Tell Olvie it’s ready. She can drive it in the garage her own damn self. I’m going home.”

From my WIP about forging friendships during the Civil Rights Movement (1963)

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Pictures that don’t match up

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I look in my duffle bag and see the sparring gloves Colonel Posey lent to me yesterday He had looked tired to me, like a man defeated from grief but who was still trying to stand up straight. His hair was Graying, and his eyes had lines at the corners like a map of a busy town. But his kindness sat on my chest like Pa’s and Ike’s kindness, stayed there perched like a redbird.

I thought about when Colonel Posey’s little daughter had died six months back from some disease the doctors didn’t know how to cure. I thought about Ervin Clay Carter and Gene Davis, them being dead and how hard it was on their parents and, maybe, how hard it was on me. They were just kids and life had sucked the air out of them easier than sucking a chocolate malt through a thin straw. Then I thought about Private Henderson.

After I’d told Colonel Posey about sparring with my father he said, “You know, whatever picture you’ve formed in your head about sparring with your father might not be what really happens.”

I knew what he was talking about. I thought of other pictures I’d made up in my head that didn’t match the truth, like working on that pipeline. That picture wasn’t anything like what happened. I thought of more pictures from long ago, like me owning my own guitar, or having a real conversation with my dad, or being able to reach my .22.

Drunk and crazy cowboys

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Ike, my great grandfather, at age 23

 

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Ike, “Is’ral”, in later years

 

 

 

According to Grady, Logchain and “Is’ral” got real liquored up, the two of them drunker than Cooter Brown. They hopped on top of Nellie, Ike’s old Gray mare, and rode straight into the lobby of the Gholson Hotel. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Nellie wore a bell around her neck that swayed back and forth like it was ringing an announcement that the two Cooter Browns were itching for havoc. Fire Chief Murphy chased after them, hollering for them to stop their nonsense. Instead of stopping, they roped ol’ Fire Chief Murphy and pulled him around a little bit. They didn’t hurt him none, but the madder the chief got, the more they laughed their fool heads off.

When Fire Chief Murphy finally freed himself from the rope, he just brushed off and mumbled, “Damn fools.” Then he walked off shaking his head like he still had dirt in his ears from really being dragged in the road.

That wasn’t the end of it. Ike told Pa he needed to go to the barbershop for a shave.

Pa says, “Aye, God, Is’ral, ain’t no need te pay Grady for a shave. I’ll do’er fer free.”

“Well,” says Ike, pondering the idea and probably clicking his cheek. “Alrighty then.”

They stumbled into the barbershop, and Ike walked over to Grady’s barber chair where he plopped down his dusty butt. Pa threw the shaving towel over him and lathered him up real good with the shaving brush. Grady said he just stepped aside and leaned up against the wall with his arms folded. He told me it was better than watching a picture show.

After the first nick, Pa slapped a little piece of paper over the cut and kept on shaving. After the second cut and the second little piece of paper Ike says, “Don’t ye be drainin’ m—” but Pa slapped a piece of paper over his mouth, so he’d shut the hell up saying, “Quit yer bellyachin’, Is’ral.”

By the time they walked out of the barbershop, Ike’s face was covered with those tiny pieces of paper. From cheek to cheek and nose to chin he looked like he’d walked out of a mummy’s tomb.

Grady said he was laughing so hard he barely heard it when Ike mumbled, “Logchain, it’s a miracle you didn’t cut my head plumb off.”

Then, those two crazy cowboys got back on that old grey mare, her bell just a ringing and rode off to who knows where to do who knows what else.

From No Hill for a Stepper, my father’s story.

 

 

 

The unenlightened neighbor

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Olvie pours herself another cup of Folgers while I start the pancake mix. “I think that was the door, Olvie.”

“Come in, Wise-Guy,” Olvie yells.

“Well, that was pleasant,” Tanner says, wearing a clean pair of “underground” railroad pants.

I pour circles of batter into the hot skillet. “What?”

“Man came charging toward me from across the street. Said I didn’t have any business being here. Guess he doesn’t like Negros.”

“Asshole,” Olvie mumbles.“That’s because he doesn’t like himself, that stupid son of a bitch.”

Pondering her words, I wonder if Olvie is really smarter than the rest of us. Mom and Dad told me people are often scared of things they don’t understand. And instead of trying to figure out what they’re afraid of, they resist anything new, anything different. Mr. Roberts must not have any Negro friends. If he did, he wouldn’t be afraid of a teenage boy.

“What did you tell him?” I ask.

“Nothing. I ignored him.”

“Why’d you do a thing like that?” Olvie says. “Should have told him off.”

“And why would I do that?” he says. “I don’t want trouble.”

Olvie huffs. “You sound like your uncle. ‘Don’t wants to cause any trouble, ma’am. Yes’m, anything you want, ma’am. Ain’t no good stirring the pot, you see.’ Ugh.”

“You think Uncle Elias should stand up for himself? Like I told Chicken Coop, he’s old school. He’s still afraid of the white man’s world.”

“Oh, and you’re not?” Olvie says.

“Oh, yes’m, I is alright,” he says in dialect. “Jes’ try nots to show it.”

Olvie stops in mid Chuckle. “Elias still thinks garlic hanging over a bed will cure a cold. If you tell him otherwise, he won’t listen. Speaking of, how’s that finger, Wise Guy. Need me to chop it off? You hung those tools up real nice in the utility room. I can find my saw easy now.”

Tanner squeezes his hand. “No thanks. Think I’ll hold on to it for a while.”

This makes Olvie laugh. She has a good laugh, one I’d like to hear more often.

Excerpt from my work in progress set in 1963.

 

NOTE: The photo is of Emmett Till who reminds me of my character, Tanner Ford. This novel will be in honor and memory of Emmett.

Climbing out of Guilt

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Cono Dennis, my father, at age 18

I still think it’s a crying shame that I had to spend so much time thinking it was my fault. I guess that’s what we do sometimes, take the blame for things that just aren’t our fault, especially when we don’t know any better. But back then I didn’t have a Colonel Posey to tell me any different.

Last week on the base, that responsibility was especially tough, and I don’t feel much like I lived up to it. I was right in the middle of running a training exercise when a young private missed the rope leading down from the

I still think it’s a crying shame that I had to spend so much time thinking it was my fault. I guess that’s what we do sometimes, take the blame for things that just aren’t our fault, especially when we don’t know any better. But back then I didn’t have a Colonel Posey to tell me any different.

Last week on the base, that responsibility was especially tough, and I don’t feel much like I lived up to it. I was right in the middle of running a training exercise when a young private missed the rope leading down from the Climbing wall. He fell fifteen feet to the ground, landing wrong. We all ran over and circled him like a bunch of buzzards.

“Sergeant Dennis,” he says, “My neck. I don’t feel so good.”

“Aw, you’ll be all right son,” I told him. “They’re coming to take ye to the hospital. You’ll be all right.”

But he wasn’t. Private Henderson died later that day.

So far, almost every night since then, I imagine him lying there on that hard ground, his eyes staring into mine with confusion and fear. I’d lied to him.

Colonel Posey told me I had done nothing wrong, that it wasn’t my fault Private Henderson had died. He told me I was the best sergeant he’d had so far, told me how he appreciated me. I looked at him for a second or two until all the guilt flew off my shoulder like specks of dirt in a windstorm.

Excerpt from No Hill for a Stepper, my father’s story

Measuring up

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Cono, my father, age 14

You don’t really know much when you’re born, but that’s where it starts, alright, whether you like it or not. When you’re just a little suckling pig on your mamma’s teat, all you really want to know is that the teat will keep filling up so you can start suckling all over again. Once you reckon the food’s always gonna be there, you move on to wondering whether you’re gonna be kept safe from harm and warm when it’s cold. As you get a little older, you find out that maybe there isn’t always going to be enough to eat after all, and you won’t always be warm either. This is especially true if you grew up during the Great Depression in Texas, in the western part, where any stranger is sized up from boot to hat, if, that is, they’re lucky enough to own both.

Texans trust themselves first and foremost, and then maybe one or two of their kinfolk, as long as they’ve found that trust to be right as rain, if the sun can set on their words. I grew up trying to figure out who was in which category, who I could trust and who to never turn my back on. There was a lot of line crossing. I learned what I know from watching those who crossed over and the others who stayed on their own side.

I did both.

Excerpt from No Hill for a Stepper, my father’s story

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