I went down home in 1970. It was the year I turned four. I wasn’t the only one traveled with them that night. My cousins who lived next door went too. Like so many other Black folks of that time had learned to do we left the house late at night (or early in the morning depending on your view) after the chicken had been fried and wrapped in foil, after the drinks had been placed in a cooler, after I had been awakened from the sleep they made me take at around four p.m., and after everyone had made at least two trips to the bathroom. Maybe it wasn’t the year. Maybe there was still something left over, some memory of slavery and simultaneous breaking away into freedom. Only we were going the opposite direction from the north star. We were all going to Mound Bayou, Mississippi. Just about as deep south as any of the enslaved persons would ever go.
I don’t remember getting into my grandfather’s deuce and a quarter. I know that a few times I woke up, in between the two of them in the front seat, and was told to go back to sleep. I remember the smell of the packages of fried chicken being passed around in the backseat. My boy cousins, Michael, Michelle, and Jesse (the youngest son who was selected to be the one to carry his father’s name, we called him Jr. And here’s something curious. I had another cousin named Jr. so the difference became Jr. Sharp and Jr. Staples). When I woke up good we were driving down a road which was single lane, one way on each side. I was scared of the shapes the kudzu made. I saw a man way, way, way up in the trees. He had some kind of belt around his waist. ?Look grandmamma, Spiderman!? Everyone in the car laughed. With a breakfast of good fried chicken (I didn’t care if it wasn’t hot anymore) and a rare bottle of soda all to myself (I was only allowed to drink soda water on holidays and I never got the whole bottle. My grandmother thought soda ?made kids bad??). I know I had to have had some kind of fruit too. She was always going on and on about a clean colon. My grandmother and grandfather were ahead of their time. He was the first person I ever knew who went on a diet. He went from six foot one and 250 pounds to a slim 200. She decreed that we all have roughage. Oatmeal. A relish tray of cucumbers, tomatoes, and some other stuff I can’t remember. Today, I know why I eat it but back then I just ate it. I was a very good eater.
We were driving and I was telling my grandmother what I saw in the colossal, light-obscuring kudzu formations. I saw an elephant. I imagined another one to be a dinosaur. Another one looked like Mother Newberry turned around (Mother Newberry was known far and wide for her Xhosa styled figure. Her rear was so prolific that you could actually see it from a forward view). Again, they laughed at my observations. It was my first time seeing kudzu and although many children are afraid of the swamp water fed foliage, I was not. With the sun shining our path to Mound Bayou, my grandmother teaching me, and my grandfather at the wheel, there was nothing in the whole wide world to fear.
I saw the homestead from the road. ?What’s those, baby?? My grandmother saw the white animals in the pen before I could register, in my mind, what they were. I had no frame of reference. To my mind, a pig was a pork chop, a rib, or a hamhock. A pig was a cute pink thing with a squiggly tale and only inhabited my story books. So, I answered the question with timidness, ?ponies.? ?Naw, gal. Those is hogs.? I didn’t say anything. I didn’t know what a hog was. More importantly I didn’t know that a hog was a pig. I figured I would find out later.
We drove up that dirt road and all of the Irving family, the land owners, came into view. Each one wore the biggest smile. Several of them clapped their hands. ?Praise God? were the first words my great Uncle Joe said or the first words I ever heard him say. I was home for the first time. I was touching the land my great grandfather worked. I was walking in the same steps my grandfather took in 1934 when he started to court my grandmother. I was re-united with the land.
I found out what hogs were when my cousins picked me up and held me over the pen. This amused them but not my grandfather. He got them. That same day I was terrified by animals once again. I was standing below the house (it was set up very high probably because of floods) and I started to pet a chicken. The chicken didn’t like it. She pecked me on the arm. She took off after me and I started running. The other chickens joined in. Some puppies joined. I kept running. I don’t know how many other small and baby animals were chasing me. I was running for my life as fast as my round brown legs would carry me. The entire procession of young life went around the house once. As we started the second leg of the race my grandfather stopped laughing with everyone else. I had given them the best entertainment ever! He reached his long body over the porch and just as I was about ten paces into the first curve he reached down (?retched down? as my grandma would say) and plucked me from the lead. He held me. I was crying. I was out of breath. It was my first experience with chickens and I have been getting my revenge on these birds ever since.
I saw so many things inside that house. I saw a real wood burning cook stove. Outside of the house there was a still working outhouse. I don’t remember using it. Away from the sanctuary of Mound Bayou, in some town untold to me, my grandfather and I were walking. My grandmother was always a lady like stepper and she was in her place behind us. My grandfather stopped and I stopped too. He faced a sign. He said nothing. I read the words on the rusty metal plate leaning against the brick wall of a dilapidated building, ?Whites Only.? I was home.
Articles by La Vonda R. Staples