Most of them care nothing whatever about race.19
They want only their proper place in the sun
and the right to be left alone,
like any other citizen of the republic.
— JAMES BALDWIN, Notes of a Native Son
IDA MAE BRANDON GLADNEY
IDA MAE SETS HONEY on the window screen in her yellow-tiled kitchen to feed the bees. She gives away tiny seeds of four-o’-clocks and morning glories. They are a wonder to her, waking up as they do at the same time every day, more reliable than the best-intentioned people.
In her kitchen, she cooks no differently than if she were in Mississippi, folding the eggs and sugar, butter and nutmeg into softened sweet potatoes to make sweet potato pie, boiling her collards and mustard greens with ham hocks until they are rich and satiny and then making the corn bread to go with them. She has no use for recipes. It’s all in her memory from what Miss Theenie taught her and her sisters-in-law back in Mississippi. She sifts cornmeal, white flour, a little baking powder, and a palmful of salt into a tin pan. She stirs in six eggs, sprinkles in a little sugar, and spreads a pool of vegetable oil in the baking pan before pouring in the batter.
Not too long ago, Eleanor went down south with a friend and came back reporting that the people were using self-rising meal for their corn bread in Mississippi now. Ida Mae didn’t know what to make of it. She would have to rethink what she was doing. It was a revolutionary break from how they did things when she was there. For generations, they had used plain old cornmeal, back to slavery days, when that was all that they had. Everything in the recipes in their heads called for it. For years, they’d had self-rising meal in the North, but Ida Mae never tried it because that’s not what they used down south when she was coming up. It wouldn’t be authentic. But Ida Mae thought she might as well try it if that was the way they were doing things now. So she and Eleanor went out and bought some self-rising meal, and Ida Mae tried it. But the corn bread rose up like a pound cake. She wasn’t sure if it was this newfangled meal or how she used it, but she never did try it again.
On this day, she puts the corn bread, made the way it was when she was coming up, into the oven and waits for it to bake. The corn bread grows plump and golden, and Ida Mae pulls it out when it is ready.
“Now you put you some butter and some buttermilk on it,” she says, “and it make you want to hurt yourself.”
At this stage of her life, the kitchen, where she whips up from memory the staples of the South, and the living room, where she monitors the streets of the North, are the center of her everyday world. Lately the invitations she gets are not to the weddings and baby showers of the young but to the funerals and wakes of her dwindling generation. It seems as though every week someone is admitted to the hospital or being eulogized. As she’s the healthiest one in her circle of friends and the oldest member of her extended family, everyone expects to see her in their moments of grief.
She has just heard that another sister-in-law, Dessie, has died, and Ida Mae is getting ready to go to her funeral. The news hurls her back to the Pearson plantation in Mississippi, she and Dessie stopping to pick blackberries and Dessie teaching her how to make blackberry cobbler and tomato pie. She remembers being a young bride in a strange world, of all her husband’s people on the plantation, all the brothers and their wives, the sisters and their kids, and how they took to her and brought her into their family.
“All them dead now,” she says of her husband’s generation of brothers and sisters.
The descendants want her to speak at the funeral since she is the oldest one left. Ida Mae doesn’t like to dwell on the past or get mired in sadness. She doesn’t want to do it.
“It’s nothing I can say,” she says. “Nothing I can say can bring her back.”
She’s beginning to dread funerals altogether but will go to this one and do what is expected of her. She will console the living, but it’s getting harder and harder.
“I don’t like going to funerals anymore,” she says. “If it’s sad, it just tears me to pieces.”
One day she gets word that her beloved nephew Robert, whom they call Saint and who helped her and her family get out of Mississippi sixty years ago, has suffered a stroke. What is worse, his wife, Catherine, had a stroke just before he did. He had gone to the hospital every day to check on his wife before being stricken himself and each time was heartbroken over her blank stares and unmovable limbs. Now the two of them are separated for the first time in their marriage, she in the hospital, he in rehab. Ida Mae has to visit them both.
Today she is going to see Saint at a rehabilitation center at Ninety-fifth and Cicero. Saint had helped Ida Mae and her husband sell the things they didn’t have time to dispense with or that, had they tried, would have attracted unwanted attention as they plotted their escape. He ended up following them up to Chicago with his wife and family in 1943, and they stayed with Ida Mae and George, as was the tradition among people migrating from the South, until they could get on their feet.
“I decided to come up because I had people up here,” he is saying, sitting in his wheelchair. “People were coming up. I got in the crowd.”
Saint and Ida Mae start reminiscing about the people they know from back home, how they are faring, who’s a deacon now, who’s moved into a nursing home, who’s moved in with their grown kids out in the suburbs.
“It’s a shame we all here and don’t see each other,” Robert says.
Then it hits him that he can’t see his wife either. He starts to look down, and his eyes get moist. It’s been the saddest of years, his wife taking sick and now him in a wheelchair from a stroke just like she had. His eyes well up.
Ida Mae looks at him, sorrowful and sad, too. This is her nephew by marriage. She is not much older than he is. She has known him for some sixty-five years. She owes him in part for her safe passage out of the South. His wife, Catherine, is one of the sweetest people she has ever known. And they call the man before her Saint for a reason. He wants to be with his wife, but he can’t. The whole thing is breaking Ida Mae’s heart too. But then she catches herself, stiffens her back, and makes up her mind to have none of that pity.
“Now, we not going to do that,” she says staring at the floor, not able to look Saint in the face. “God don’t make no mistakes. Either you gon’ get better or you not. He’s gon’ see about you and do what he want. Now, you be thankful you did all you could. You didn’t miss a day.”
She’s older than all of them but fit and modern in her mint green pantsuit and black pumps and copper mesh hat with her white curls peeking from beneath it, while the younger nephew is bound for the moment to a wheelchair.
She changes the subject, tries to lighten the heaviness in the air. “The kids fuss at me,” she tells him about how she eats everything put before her. “They say, ‘She don’t let no food pass her mouth.’ I say, ‘Be a time you won’t have to worry about me eatin’.’ They say, ‘There she go again.’ ”
“I told my kids, I’m doing pretty good to be seventy-seven years old,” Saint says.
Ida Mae looks at him and smiles.
“That ain’t old,” she tells him.
On a late winter afternoon, Ida Mae is going through some old funeral programs like other people go through family photo albums. She starts to thinking about all the funerals she has been to, and one stands out in her mind. It was of a nephew of her husband. The nephew had been gay, and his companion, who was white, was distraught beyond words.
As she is recounting the story, Betty, the tenant from upstairs, happens to be there for a visit. Ida Mae describes how the companion was so torn up about her nephew’s death that he nearly climbed into the casket.
“It was a white fella he was living with,” she says. “And when they closed the casket, that white boy fell out. He said, ‘Don’t close the casket!’ He took care of him to the end. Wouldn’t let him go.
“I guess he musta really loved him,” she says.
“That’s not love,” Betty breaks in. “God didn’t mean for no man to be with no other man. They can’t love. They don’t know what love is.”
“You don’t think they can love each other?” Ida Mae asks her.
“Can’t no man love another man. Only men and women can love each other.”
Ida Mae just looks straight ahead toward the couch. She knows what she saw. There are husbands who don’t show out like that for their wives and wives looking relieved and near-gleeful at their husbands’ funerals.
Ida Mae shakes her head. “Well, I don’t know what it is,” she says. “But it sure is something there.”
Ida Mae is the last of her sisters and brothers still alive. The last one to go was Irene, the sister who urged her to come up north in the first place and whom she and her family stayed with in Milwaukee for a time.
Irene died in 1996, and it fell to Ida Mae to manage her affairs. It meant periodic trips to Milwaukee that Ida Mae took on without a great show of sentiment as just part of her duty as a sister.
It is the middle of October 1997. We are driving north toward Milwaukee on Lake Shore Drive along the curves of Lake Michigan. It is a blue glass sea with white waves like the ocean.
It has been a year since Irene’s death, and still Ida Mae has business she must attend to. I had offered to drive Ida Mae and Eleanor to Milwaukee, and we are on our way on a steel gray morning. A storm gathers as we head north on the Edens Expressway. The rain beats down in sheets. Cars are having to slow to a crawl, and you can barely see ahead of you. The trip is going to take much longer than expected. This will cut into the time she will have to take care of things.
“It’s really coming down,” I say. “Of all days. I hope it won’t be like this all day long.”
This sets off an automatic response in Ida Mae, and she reframes the moment for everyone.
“Now, we ain’t got nothing to do with God’s business,” she says, sitting back in her seat.
She adjusts herself and straightens her scarf, contenting herself with whatever the day has in store.
NEW YORK, 1997
GEORGE SWANSON STARLING
THERE IS A STIRRING among the original migrants and their children. The question is whether they should go back south again. Some haven’t been back since they left and see no reason to go back now. Some go back and forth all the time and have already picked out a plot of land. George is somewhere in the middle.
He has diabetes now, and his knees are failing him. People in his circle from back in Florida are dying off or moving away. He’s now under some pressure to move back to Florida from people who see the reconstituted South as the next refuge. People who left decades before, and even more likely their children, can’t help but consider the prospects of a changed South, whether they act on it or not.
“Two more years, and I’ll be able to retire and I’m gone,” some of the people who came north have been saying. They say they are weary of the confined spaces, the cost of living, the crime, just the stress of living among so many millions of people.
“I don’t know why you staying up here,” some of them have been telling George. “Better get out from here while you can.”
It reminds George of how people talked during the Migration. “People saying the same thing they said before, just in the reverse,” he says.
But there are fundamental differences, as he sees it, between those who went north and those who stayed in the South, the people and the place he would be returning to if he chose to do so, and he doesn’t see that changing. “Those who didn’t leave learned to accept it,” he says.
He never did.
“I think about leaving the North,” he says. “But I would be a stranger down there. I’ve lived in New York for fifty-two years. I’ve spent more time here than there. I’m a New Yorker now. Almost all the ones I grew up with are in nursing homes. If I went back, what would I do?”
There is an unspoken fear among some migrants to the North that, no matter how much better you could live in the South on those northern pensions, going home is somehow moving backward, a retreat, an admission of failure or at worst something that, like retirement itself, could signal the end of the full part of life and perhaps the end of life itself.
It was making George think back to what had happened to his old friend Babe Blye.
Babe was George’s best friend and upstairs tenant who had worked with him in the orange groves when they were young men. Babe had come to New York in 1932 with his brother Reuben, well before George, and had gone back and forth between New York and Florida until George came up. For years, the two of them had lived in George’s brownstone together with their wives, like the Ricardos and the Mertzes on I Love Lucy.
Babe so loved New York that he didn’t go back to Florida “unless somebody was sick or died,” Reuben said.
For years he worked at a car-painting factory in New York, caught possum in the Connecticut woods for their barbecues, and ran poker parties with George that almost got them killed. When Babe got sick, he went to George and told him he was going home. He asked George, whom he always called Son, a favor before he left.
“Son,” Babe said. “I ain’t gon’ live long, Son. I’m going back. But I want you to sing ‘Peace in the Valley’ at my funeral.”
“Babe, I ain’t got no guarantee I’m a outlive you.”
“Oh, yeah, you gon’ outlive me.”
“Well, close as we’ve been, I don’t know if I can sing that.”
“Goddammit, I want you to sing ‘Peace in the Valley’ now,” Babe said. “Goddammit, I want you to promise me ’fore I go. You gon’ sing ‘Peace in the Valley’?”
“Okay. Yeah, Babe, I’m a sing ‘Peace in the Valley.’ ”
In his heart he knew he couldn’t. They were too close, like brothers, Babe and his wife, Hallie Q., upstairs from George and Inez all those years.
Babe left New York and went back to Eustis to live out his final years. He didn’t live terribly long after that, a couple of years, as George and Reuben recalled.
He knew he was sick when he left. “He didn’t tell me everything,” George said. “But he knew something was wrong. And all of a sudden, he got it on his mind he wanted to go back home.”
Babe died in 1976. The funeral was at the St. James Methodist Church, where George and Sam and Mud had eaten all those oranges back when they were little boys.
George went back for the funeral but didn’t think he could get through a song about his friend and onetime crew foreman who had protected him in the orange groves. He figured he wouldn’t have to, what with Babe being gone and no one there to make him do it.
Apparently Babe had told his wife, Hallie Q. She went up to George at the funeral.
“George, you supposed to sing ‘Peace in the Valley,’ ” she said.
“Q., I can’t do it.”
“You promised Babe.”
Somehow George got through the song Babe loved so much. George had to take his handkerchief and wipe his eyes at the end of it. The original Migration people were falling away.
LOS ANGELES, AUTUMN 1996
ROBERT JOSEPH PERSHING FOSTER
ROBERT’S FRIENDS and former classmates are getting up in years and facing one ailment or another, which puts Robert in almost as much demand as he was when he had a full-time practice. A friend called to complain about a cough and thought he might need to go to the hospital. Robert calmed him down and told him to give the antibiotics a chance to work.
Today he has gotten word that an old classmate from Morehouse is in the hospital, and Robert wants to go by and see him. We drive to a hospital in South Central. As we walk out of the elevator to get to the man’s room, someone runs toward us.
“Dr. Foster, Dr. Foster!” the man is exclaiming.
It’s an orderly who recognizes Robert from years ago and comes over to him out of breath.
“Don’t you remember me from that appendectomy over on Hoover?”
“Why, of course, I do,” Robert says, not remembering the man exactly but not letting on.
The orderly gets Robert caught up on what he has been doing the past few years, excitedly trying to impress him, and Robert wishes him well.
“You take care, Dr. Foster.”
“And you as well.”
Back at the house, he boils water for tea. He seems calm and at peace, distant now from the multiple recountings of the hard trek he made to get to California. He has thought things through and seems to have figured out his thinking now.
“I wanted to prove to them that I was worthy of a room,” he says of his rejection along his journey. “I was not sure that I was good enough to be admitted. What good had it done me to get all this education and work as a surgeon in the army?”
“Have you ever been back through that stretch?” I ask him.
“Never,” he shoots back. “I drove back south, but I went through Oklahoma.”
He pauses and considers the effect his migration had on how he lived out the rest of his life and how he raised his daughters. He had demanded more of them than might have been necessary. He became obsessed with appearances and spent a fortune on their clothes and breeding so that there would be no reason for them to be rejected as he had been.
“I gave my daughters ballet so they could know how to walk,” he said, “and create the picture I wanted. I wanted them to have an excellent education. I didn’t want them to suffer the pains of racism. I didn’t want them to have to sit in the back of the bus, suffer the unwelcome attention of low-class whites. I didn’t want them to be open to being molested.”
Unlike other parents raised in the South, he had never drilled into his children the hardships he had endured or dwelled on the limits of what they could or could not do based on the color of their skin. It was a strategy that worked beautifully in producing young women of grace and refinement but left them knowing little about the rituals and folk wisdom and history of the South or, in the end, that part of their father.
He remade himself in California and still does not fully know what to make of the place.
“It seemed like a fairyland the way they painted the picture,” he says, “and I bought it.”
“What do you think now?” I ask him.
“It’s not the oasis that I thought it was,” he says, “but I’ve got over that, too.”
He pauses and considers the options of a stifled life under the deadly combination of Jim Crow and “little-townism,” as he calls it, if he had stayed in Monroe or even Atlanta.
“I don’t think I could have done any better,” he finally says.
Robert has a taste for collard greens and corn bread, and we go to his favorite soul food restaurant in Inglewood, over by Crenshaw and Manchester, run by some people from Mississippi. He orders up yams and collards and smothered chicken and remembers that it was here that he sat when the riots over the Rodney King verdict broke out in May 1992. He remembers telling the waitress to wrap everything up.
“Let me get out of here,” he told her. He turned north on Crenshaw and raced to get back home.
On this day four years later, the streets of his beloved adopted city are quiet, and Robert is momentarily back in the South with the comfort food of his youth. When it’s time to leave, I prepare to take him home, but he tells me he’d rather be dropped off somewhere else. He wants to go to Hollywood Park racetrack, which all too conveniently happens to be right around the corner from the restaurant. He assures me he will have a way to get home. On the short ride to the track, he talks about how it feels, just going into a casino, which, for him, is more than a casino, but freedom itself.
“I walk into a casino,” he says, “and I act like I own it.”
Walking in like that attracts just the kind of attention he craves.
“What kind of surgeon are you?” a man asked him once, having heard he was a doctor.
“A damn good one,” Robert told the man with a smile.
We arrive at the track, and Robert gets out of the car in his windbreaker and pensioner’s slacks. He looks up at the exterior of the track, which looms high above him like a coliseum. He is a regal man, small-boned and slight in stature, and he looks out of place given his bearing and pedigree. But he quickens his step the closer he gets to the entrance. I watch him to make sure he gets in alright until he disappears into the crowd. He does not look back but straight ahead, as if he owns the place.