Araminta knew she’d brought all kinds of trouble down on her head. She’d hollered at Father, she’d disrespected Mother, and she’d run off without a hat to protect her from the sun. She’d sat with those—what’d Father call them—‘lost sheep’? And she’d done it all with every nosy busybody in Cabbage T. standing witness.
God in heaven, why you let me do that…
Now, she stood sweating and fretting and trying to figure a way out of the mess she’d made.
She skipped behind the Seed Store and was stopped in her tracks. Fingers were wrenched from the patchy baldness on her temple and Araminta hurriedly pulled her scarf into place. Standing before her in the road were two women she would have given her left eye not to meet. It was too late, they were walking straight at her. She could do nothing but ready herself. These were the same two who stopped by Father’s school the day before last to announce (loudly) to him and Mother that Cabbage T. was in need of an elected School Board.
Araminta had been sitting on the porch when they’d come, and Father (hatted to protect against the last rays of sun) had been in the midst of sweeping orange dust off the front steps.
The women said somebody needed to know what it was Father and Mother called themselves teaching to the children of Cabbage T. They said the two of them felt obliged to take up the posts.
Father had been so unsettled by their assault, he’d stood with one foot poised above the bottom step until their speech was done.
“But Ma’am’s,” he said, when his foot finally came down, “we have just the one school, and only a handful of students…”
“An’ nobody to know whut ch’all is teachin’ ‘em,” one of them said.
They were standing close together, and when Mother came out in her sun hat to stand behind Araminta, two men (Araminta guessed they belonged to the women) sauntered from the road into the yard. The four of them stood in the front of the porch and right then and there voted themselves to the posts of Cabbage T.’s first Board of Education.
Araminta had watched her parents cower, saw them do nothing. Father nodded once before walking up the steps to take Mother’s arm. Without saying a word to her, two of them had walked past Araminta and into the house.
Now, those same two women were standing in the middle of the road.
Araminta saw their eyes bright and eager. Their names were Miz Lassie and Miz Hughes, and neatly filling the gap between them was Prandy Tweet. All Araminta’s expectations were met when Miz Lassie lifted a hand to shade her eyes so she could squint her disapproval, and Miz Hughes turned to whisper at Prandy’s fat head.
Araminta had to ball her hands against her thighs to keep from pulling at the hair crawling along her temples. Waves of regret tightened her chest and throat. Of course they’d heard about her afternoon. Of course they’d already made it their business to tell every other nosy body. Some of them, she knew, were bold enough to head straight to her home to make a report to Mother and Father.
She didn’t want them to hear a bastardized tale, and in her distress (and to her horror) she felt her eyes sting. She fought the tears, but when the women’s faces shaped into smirks so familiar to her heart, it was anger that dried her eyes. “Go on and say what you got to,” she yelled to Miz Lassie. “It won’t be nothin’ I ain’t heard before!”
Araminta was not prepared for their reaction. The three of them fixed their mouths with disgusted sneers and walked away.
“No!” she hollered. “Y’all come back here!”
She ran around to face them. “The reason y’all stood there watchin’ me come down the road was so I could see you standing with your heads together! You wanted me to see you laughin’. You wanted me to feel hurt behind it. Now you standin’ here acting so mortified, like you never heard or seen nothin’ worse than me!” She worked at the sob swelling in her chest and was able to turn it into a laugh before it left her throat.
“From the looks of it, both y’all field niggah’s seen worse and prob’ly done worse. You think I care what you whisper behind your nasty hands!”
The women and the fat girl gagged on air.
Araminta stopped, shocked into lock-jawed silence. Fury constricted the womens’ faces, shaping them into frightening masks, but nothing terrified her more than feeling her own mouth open again, watching her arm jab at them, seeing her finger point.
“Y’all don’t fool me. Runnin’ yo’ mouths all over town. You prob’ly sent somebody to my house, an’ y’all are dumb enough to think I don’t know why! Well I do! You hate Mother ‘cause she’s pretty an’ smart. Smarter than y’all ever will be! Not you or you could start a school if you wanted to, you ignorant cows! How long y’all been here without one! Father came to this nigger town an’ took on that burden tryin’ to teach y’all ignorant suck tooth bastards, an’ fo’ what?” She felt Tweet’s sweet cream and lemonade churning up her throat. The fear of spilling sick in front of the three of them made her close her eyes and throw her hands over her face. In the darkness, she saw the tearful face of Mother, the fearful face of Father. She hated them. More than she ever had. It was Mother and Father who talked this way. Not her.
Disgusted, she doubled over sobbing and hugging herself.
Miz Hughes and Miz Lassie looked sideways at the handful of folk braving the heat to see what was going on. Araminta straightened, and forced herself to face them all.
“You…you’re the same ones…ca…calling m…me… ma…master’s bastard.” Tears spilled over her chin. “Th…that’s why your chil…children say it! That’s…that’s the only thing y’…you been able to teach ‘em!”
She went to Miz Lassie—stood nearly breast to breast, thinking she might be able to apologize. But the eyes that met her own showed the folly of such thought and Araminta was stunned to feel something rise inside her, matching what she saw. She wanted to mash her knuckles in the woman’s mouth, punch her in the throat—Damn it all—why does it come to this?
She mashed back tears, steadied herself with a deep breath, and turned to see who made up the crowd now pressing in on her. Her eyes bulged in disbelief when her mouth opened itself up to say, “Now all y’all can say you saw Minee hanging ‘round with whores.” She slapped a hand over it. Sick. The sun was too hot. Folk in the crowd saw her walk in a jerking circle. She bent to shake out her skirts and began laughing to herself. “Oh! No!” she cried out, “That’s not right. I know what y’all gonna say. You gonna say ‘master’s bastard is a whore.” She grinned in triumph. “And guess what. You two FINE ladies ain’t no better than any one of them I was sitting with!”
She spun in the dust. A tight wedge of men and women and children were gathered behind her. She saw them all squinting, frowning in the sunlight and felt herself trapped. Behind her and to the right was the crowd, to her left was the high edge of the sidewalk and a slat wood railing. In front of her were the two of them and Prandy. She didn’t want to look on their faces ever again, but they were blocking the easiest way out, and she wanted to go home.
Araminta straightened her back and prepared to walk as steadily as she could right by Miz Lassie and Miz Hughes. She’d taken just a few steps when suddenly, incredulously, she felt her lips part again.
“Ya’ll can pretend all you like,” she heard her mouth say, “but you won’t never be good as us!”
Mouths cussed, screeched, yelled, and screamed. Araminta vomited into the dust at their feet.
“Somethin’s goin’ on,” LuJane called to Callie. “We kin go see!”
The sun was sinking behind the trees, but it was still too hot to do anything silly as running down Freedom Boulevard, and Callie told her so. “G’won if you wont to gal, I’ll catch you up.”
Sweated out, LuJane reached the edge of the crowd and tried to squeeze herself toward the middle. She hoped to see a good fight; it had been awhile since the last one, and no one had been hurt bad that time…She pushed in, the crowd parted, and Araminta fell out.
She got up from her knees and started forward, but LuJane stuck out a foot and connected with her shins. The girl tumbled into the dusty road.
“Bastud trash,” a voice yelled out.
“Y’all hear whut she call Miz Lassie an’ Miz Hughes? Nerve o’ dat bitch!”
“Don’t take long fo’ ‘em t’ start acktin’ like theyself!”
LuJane bobbed her head grinning. She pressed herself forward to catch a glimpse of Araminta’s face. It was an unexpected treat when the girl’s desperate eyes found hers. LuJane waved.
Araminta pushed herself up and forced her way to the outside edge of the crowd. When she tripped again and fell forward, the crowd was so close she regained her footing and tried to turn and run, but no one was ready to let her go. They yelled and jeered and pulled at her arms. They grabbed handfuls of her shirtwaist and skirt. When she finally pulled free, a group of half-naked children ran along behind her screaming her name.
“Triflin’ ass,” somebody from the crowd shouted, “tha’s why she ain’t nevah had no frien’s!”
Someone crowed, “Y’all know all y’all too dark!”.
“I heard tell they gots a pi’ture of a white man hangin’ in dey house.”
“Dat’s th’ mama’s daddy!” a somber voice explained.
“Naw! Dat’s th’ daddy’s daddy!”
Somebody hollered, “Y’all ain’t got it righ’ chet! He both o’ dey daddy!”
The mob screamed with glee.
Callie could see LuJane among the throng of sweat shiny faces. They shimmered in the heat. Every shade, from blackest skinned to brown sugar brown, was agitated and excited and wanting something more. She could not believe Araminta had done something bad enough for them to act out like that, and was amazed to hear LuJane holler, “Dat sow talk bout all y’all like dat!”
Callie shook her head. None of them had known Araminta very long. She was one of a handful of girls on the plantation who kept to herself.
“…an’ got hair nappier than any o’ y’all!” she heard LuJane squeal to barks of appreciation.
Callie ran along the sidewalk until she stood above the crowd. “Y’all stop it!”
She ran down the steps and grabbed at LuJane’s arm. “Minee ain’t pick th’ way she look! She got born th’ way she is! Why y’all actin’ like she keepin’ somethin’ to herself dat y’all don’t git t’ share none of!”
LuJane’s eyes rolled. A few of the men and women closest to Callie tried to appear shamed, but it was too few. Most every other body was still vibrating with mutterings and name-calling. There was no doubt they were sorely disappointed all the excitement had ended so quickly. Some were already replaying the scene to those who’d come too late to witness the ruckus.
“Come on,” LuJane reached for Callie’s hand, “you got yo’ pay t’day, let’s git somethin’ cold. Some froze cream from Tweets!”
Callie looked side-eyed at her, and slipped her hand from the girls’ grasp. She led the way from the mob and walked up the steps to the sidewalk, down to a carved bench in front of the feed store where the two of them could still see and hear the squabblers.
“Gal, why yuh acktin’ like dat, huh?”
LuJane sighed and deflated, “Whut I’m acktin’ like Callie?”
“Acktin’ like white folk…acktin’ like Colored ain’t got no feelin’s?”
LuJane hid her rolling eyes. “Callie we jist playin’!”
She pulled LuJane’s hand from her face. “All dat hollerin’ an’ yellin’ behin’ Minee ain’t playin’. Ain’t no reason t’ treat a body like dat.” She went to lean over the sidewalk railing
“LuJane, know whut? Some o’ dem people standin’ right dere got welts on dey backs so deep dey ain’t nevah gonna heal right. Dey was whipped ‘cause dey wuz slaves, an’ dey wuz slaves ‘cause of dey color. Look at ‘em!” Callie said. “Some o’ dem ain’t light as Mini but dey ain’t all dat dark neither. Dat means dey got white blood too. Why dey acktin’ out on her like dat?”
Irritated, LuJane swiped an arm across her brow. “How Ah’m ‘sposed t’ know! We don’t even know whut she did!” She frowned, “Come to thank on it, you wuz th’ one called ‘er a yella’ ass th’ otha’ day—say she come out from a rock!”
“To you LuJane. I ain’t gonna say it t’ her. She ain’t never did nothin’ t’ me.” Callie shook her head, “I don’t like you ‘cause o’ yo’ color. An’ I don’t not like you ‘cuz of it neith’a. She leaned her chin on one hand and held out the other to look at it.
“She prob’ly did somethin’ she ain’t got no business doin’!” LuJane hissed.
Callie stopped studying the color and texture of her skin to focus on LuJane. She held out her arm so LuJane could see the palm of her hand, then turned the hand over to show LuJane the back of it. She splayed out the fingers. “See dat? One side light an’ th’ other is nigger. Which side you wont t’ be frien’s wit LuJane?”
The girl turned so Callie couldn’t see her eyes rolling again.
“Stop acktin’ like dat LuJane! I ain’t tryin’ to be yo’ Mama. I jist don’t like whut y’all doin’.” After a moment, she took up both LuJane’s hands and smiled. “I know! Let’s say we ain’t gonna do dat. Just us. You say it t’ me an’ I’ll say it t’ you.”
LuJane took in Callie’s face. She saw honest distress in her eyes. There were short little lines bunched between her eyebrows, and a patch of damp curls was plastered to her forehead. In LuJane’s mind, too much time was being wasted on somebody who wasn’t even worth thinking on, besides that, Callie had her pay, and they should both be enjoying something sweet and cool, hot as it was!
One of Mu’dear’s favorite faces, one she hated most, crossed LuJane’s mind. Mu’dear would pull it on every time LuJane asked for a piece of ribbon or a scrap of lace. LuJane snatched the hatefully indulgent smile from her memory and hitched it across her own face. She patted Callie’s hand.
“Minee don’ mean nothin’ t’ us,” she said, “an’ we don’ mean nothin’ t’ her—or her mama an’ daddy. Dem peoples always sufferin’. It’s God’s punishment on ‘em fo’ leavin’ dark skinned niggahs t’ work th’ fields while dey licked up behin’ white folk! Dey brung dat on deyselves!”
Callie couldn’t stand for LuJane to go on, “Lawd a’ mercy! How one bunch o’ niggah’s gonna have a say ov’ah some mo’ bunches o’ niggahs an’ we all slaves?” Her voice kept rising until she was squeaking. “Light people ain’t…how dey gonna leave somebody t’…! You sayin’ God punishin’ ‘em? How you fix yo’ mouth to say…”
LuJane saw Callie’s mouth fall slack. Her eyes grew round and bright before she jumped off the bench and set off down the sidewalk.
LuJane turned to see what it was she’d seen, and it was them! The ladies with their little dogs were coming from the other side of Freedom Boulevard. They were walking from the stables swishing their skirts and fanning their fans, and Callie was headed straight for them.