‘I ain't said nothing but..’
Stacey cut me a wicked look and I grew silent. His disposition had been irritatingly sour lately. If I hadn't known the cause of
it. I could have forgotten very easily that he was at twelve, bigger than I, and that I had promised Mama to arrive at school
looking clean and ladylike. 'Shoot,' I mumbled finally, unable to restrain myself from further comment, 'it ain't my fault you
gotta be in Mama's class this year.'
Stacey's frown deepened and he jammed his fists into his pockets, but said nothing.
Christopher-John, walking between Stacey and me, glanced uneasily at both of us but did not interfere. A short, round boy of
seven, he took little interest in troublesome things, preferring to remain on good terms with everyone, Yet he was always
sensitive to others and now, shifting the handle of his lunch can from his right hand to his right wrist and his smudged
notebook from his left hand to his left armpit. he stuffed his free hands into his pockets and attempted to make his face as
moody as Stacey's and as cranky as mine. But after a few moments he seemed to forget that he was supposed to be grouchy
and began whistling cheerfully. There was little that could make Christopher-John unhappy for very long, not even the
thought of school.
I tugged again at my collar and dragged my feet in the dust, allowing it to sift back onto my socks and shoes like gritty red
snow. I hated the dress. And the shoes. There was little I could do in a dress, and as for shoes, they imprisoned freedom-
loving feet accustomed to the feel of the warm earth,
‘Cassie, stop that,' Stacey snapped as the dust billowed in swirling clouds around my feet. I looked up sharply, ready to
protest. Christopher-John's whistling increased to a raucous, nervous shrill. and grudgingly T let the matter drop and trudged
along in moody silence, my brothers growing as pensively quiet as I.
Before us the narrow, sun-splotched road wound like a lazy red serpent dividing the high forest bank of quiet, old trees on the
left from the cotton field, forested by giant green-and-purple stalks. on the right. A barbed-wire fence ran the length of the
deep field, stretching eastward for over a quarter of a mile until it met the sloping green pasture that signaled the end of our
family's four hundred acres, An ancient oak tree on the slope, visible even now, was the official dividing mark between
Logan land and the beginning of a dense forest. Beyond the protective fencing of the forest, vast farming fields, worked by a
multitude of share- cropping families, covered two-thirds of a ten-square-mile plantation. That was Harlan Granger land.
Once our land had been Granger land too, but the Grangers had sold it during Reconstruction to a Yankee for tax money. In
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1887, when the land was up for sell again, Grandpa had bought two hundred acres of it, and in 19I8, after the first two
hundred acres had been paid off, he had bought another two hundred, It was good rich land, much of it still virgin forest, and
there was no debt on half of it. But there was a mortgage on the two hundred acres bought in 1918 and there were taxes on the
full four hundred, and for the past three years there had not been enough money from the cotton to pay both and live on too.
That was why Papa had gone to work on the railroad.
In 1930 the price of cotton dropped, And so, in the spring of 1931, Papa set out looking for work, going as far north as
Memphis and as far south as the Delta country, He had gone west too, into Louisiana. It was there he found work laying track
for the railroad. He worked the remainder of the year away from us, not returning until the deep winter when the ground was
cold and barren. The following spring after the planting was finished. he did the same. Now it was 1933 and Papa was again
in Louisiana laying track,
I asked him once why he had to go away, why the land was so important. He took my hand and said in his quiet way: 'Look
out there, Cassie girl. All that belongs to you. You ain't never had to live on nobody's place but your own and long as I live
and the family survives, you'll never have to. That's important. You may not understand that now, but one day you will. Then
I looked at Papa strangely when he said that, for I knew that all the land did not belong to me. Some of it belonged to Stacey,
Christopher-John, and Little Man, not to mention the part that belonged to Big Ma. Mama, and Uncle Hammer, Papa's older
brother who lived in Chicago. But Papa never divided the land in his mind: it was simply Logan land. For it he would work
the long, hot summer pounding steel: Mama would teach and run the farm; Big Ma, in her sixties, would work like a woman
of twenty in the fields and keep the house; and the boys and I would wear threadbare clothing washed to dishwater color: but
always, the taxes and the mortgage would be paid. Papa said that one day I would understand.
When the fields ended and the Granger forest fanned both sides of the road with long overhanging branches, a tall,
emaciated-looking boy popped suddenly from a forest trail and swung a thin arm around Stacey. It was T. J. Avery. His
younger brother Claude emerged a moment later, smiling weakly as if it pained him to do so. Neither boy had on shoes, and
their Sunday clothing, patched and worn, hung loosely upon their frail frames. The Avery family share- cropped on Granger
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'Well.' said T.J.. jauntily swinging into step with Stacey, there we go again startin' another school year.
'Yeah,' sighed Stacey,
'Ah, man, don't look so down,' T.J. said cheerfully. 'Your mama's really one great teacher. I should know.' He certainly
should. He had failed Mama's class last year and was now returning for a second try,
'Shoot! You can say that,' exclaimed Stacey. 'You don't have to spend all day in a classroom with your mama.'
'Look on the bright side,' said T.J. 'Jus' think of the advantage you've got. You'll be learnin' all sorts of stuff 'fore the rest of
us...' He smiled slyly. 'like what's on all them tests.
Stacey thrust T.J.'s arm from his shoulders. 'If that's what you think, you don't know Mama.'
'Ain't no need gettin' mad,' T.J. replied undaunted. 'Jus' an idea.' He was quiet for a moment, then announced,
'I betcha I could give y'all an earful 'bout that burnin' last night.'
'Burning I What burning?' asked Stacey.
'Man, don't y'all know nothin'! The Berrys' burnin'. I thought y'all's grandmother went over there last night to see 'bout 'em.'
Of course we knew that Big Ma had gone to a sick house last night. She was good at medicines and people often called her
instead of a doctor when they were sick. But we didn't know anything about any burnings, and I certainly didn't know
anything about any Berrys either.
'What Berrys he talking 'bout, Stacey!' I asked. 'I don't know no Berrys.
'They live way over on the other side of Smellings Creek. They come up to church sometimes,' said Stacey absently. Then he
turned back to T.J. 'Mr. Lanier come by real late and got Big Ma. Said Mr.. Berry was low sick and needed her to help nurse
him, but he ain't said nothing 'bout no burning.'
'He's low sick all right ~'cause he got burnt near to death. Him and his two nephews, And you know who done
'Who!' Stacey and I asked together.
'Well, since y'all don't seem to know nothin',' said T.J., in his usual sickening way of nursing a tidbit of information to death,
'maybe I ought not tell y'all, It might hurt y'all's little ears.'
'Ah, boy,' I said, 'don't start that mess again.' I didn't like T.J. very much and his stalling around didn't help.
'Come on, T.J.,' said Stacey, 'out with it.'
'Well ...' T.J. murmured, then grew silent as if considering whether or not he should talk,
We reached the first of two crossroads and turned north; another mile and we would approach the second crossroads and turn
Finally T.J. said, 'Okay. See, them Berrys' burnin' wasn't no accident. Some white men took a match to 'em,'
'Y-you mean just lit 'em up like a piece of wood!' stammered Christopher-John, his eyes growing big with disbelief. 'But
why!' asked Stacey,
T.J. shrugged. 'Don't know why. Jus' know they done it, that's all.'
'How you know !' I questioned suspiciously.
He smiled smugly. ''Cause your mama come down on her way to school and talked to my mama 'bout it.'
'She did !'
'Yeah, and you should've seen the way she look when she come outa that house.'
'How'd she look!' inquired Little Man, interested enough to glance up from the road for the first time.
T.J. looked around grimly and whispered. 'like... death.' He waited a moment for his words to be appropriately shocking, but
the effect was spoiled by Little Man, who asked lightly, 'What does death look like !'
T.J. turned in annoyance. 'Don't he know nothin'!'
'Well, what does it look like?' Little Man demanded to know. He didn't like T.J. either, 'Like my grandfather looked jus' 'fore
they buried him, T.J. described all-knowingly.
'Oh.' replied Little Man, losing interest and concentrating on the road again.
'I tell ya. Stacey, man,' said T.J. morosely, shaking his head. 'sometimes I jus' don't know 'bout that family of yours.
Stacey pulled back, considering whether or not T.J.'s words were offensive. but T.]. immediately erased the question by
continuing amiably. 'Don't get me wrong, Stacey. They some real swell kids, but that Cassie 'bout got me whipped this
'Good !' I said.
'Now how'd she do that !' Stacey laughed.
'You wouldn't be laughin' if it'd've happened to you. She up and told your mama 'bout me goin' up to that Wallace store
dancin' room and Miz Logan told Mama.' He eyed me disdainfully then went on. 'But don't worry, I got out of it though.
When Mama asked me 'bout it, I jus' said ole Claude was always sneakin' up there to get some of that free candy Mr. Kaleb
give out sometimes and I had to go and get him 'cause I knowed good and well she didn't want us up there. Boy, did he get
it?' T.J. laughed. 'Mama 'bout wore him out.
I stared at quiet Claude. 'You let him do that!' I exclaimed. But Claude only smiled in that sickly way of his and I knew that
he had. He was more afraid of T.J. than of his mother.
Again Little Man glanced up and I could see his dislike for T.J. growing. Friendly Christopher-John glared at T.J., and
putting his short arm around Claude's shoulder said. 'Come on, Claude. let's go on ahead.' Then he and Claude hurried up the
road, away from T.J.
Stacey, who generally overlooked T.J.'s underhanded stunts, shook his head. 'That was dirty. 'Well, what'd ya expect me to
do! I couldn't let her think I was g-oin' up there 'cause I like to, could I! She' d've killed me!'
'And good riddance.' I thought, promising myself that if he ever pulled anything like that on me, I'd knock his block off.
We were nearing the second crossroads, where deep gullies lined both sides of the road and the dense forest crept to the very
edges of high. jagged, clay-walled banks. Suddenly, Stacey turned, 'Quick!' he cried. 'Off the road!' Without another word, all
of us but Little Man scrambled up the steep right bank into the forest.
'Get up here, Man.' Stacey ordered, but Little Man only gazed at the ragged red bank sparsely covered with scraggly brown
briars and kept on walking .'Come on, do like I say.
'But I'll get my clothes dirty i' protested Little Man. 'You're gonna get them a whole lot dirtier you stay down there. Look!'
Little Man turned around and watched saucer-eyed as a bus bore down on him spewing clouds of red dust like a huge yellow
dragon breathing fire. Little Man headed toward the bank, but it was too steep. He ran frantically along the road looking for a
foothold and, finding one, hopped onto the bank, but not before the bus had sped past enveloping him in a scarlet haze while
laughing white faces pressed against the bus windows.
Little Man shook a threatening fist into the thick air, then looked dismally down at himself.
'Well, ole Little Man done got his Sunday clothes dirty, T.J. laughed as we jumped down from the bank. Angry tears welled
in Little Man's eyes but he quickly brushed them away before T.J. could see them.
'Ah, shut up, T.J.,' Stacey snapped,
'Yeah, shut up. T.J.,' I echoed.
'Come on, Man,' Stacey said,' and next time do like I tell ya.'
Little Man hopped down from the bank. 'How's come they did that. Stacey, huh!' he asked. dusting himself off. 'How's come
they didn't even stop for us !'
''Cause they like to see us run and it ain't our bus.' Stacey said, balling his fists and jamming them tightly into his pockets.
'Well, where's our bus !' demanded Little Man.
'We ain't got one.'
'Well, why not!'
'Ask Mama,' Stacey replied as a towheaded boy, bare- footed and pale. came running down a forest path toward us. The boy
quickly caught up and fell in stride with Stacey and T.J.
'Hey, Stacey,' he said shyly. 'Hey, Jeremy,' Stacey said.
There was an awkward silence.
'Y'all jus' startin' school today !'
'Yeah.' replied Stacey,
'I wishin' ours was jus' startin',' sighed Jeremy. 'Ours been goin' since the end of August.' Jeremy's eyes were a whitewashed
blue and they seemed to weep when he spoke.
'Yeah,' said Stacey again.
Jeremy kicked the dust briskly and looked toward the north. He was a strange boy. Ever since I had begun school, he had
walked with us as far as the crossroads in the morning. and met us there in the afternoon. He was often ridiculed by the other
children at his school and had shown up more than once with wide red welts on his arms which Lillian Jean, his older sister,
had revealed with satisfaction were the result of his associating with us. Still, Jeremy continued to meet us.
When we reached the crossroads, three more children, a girl of twelve or thirteen and two boys, all looking very much like
Jeremy, rushed past, The girl was Lillian Jean, 'Jeremy, come on.' she said without a backward glance, and Jeremy, smiling
sheepishly, waved a timid good-bye and slowly followed her.
We stood in the crossing gazing after them. Jeremy looked back once but then Lillian Jean yelled shrilly at him and he did not
look back again. They were headed for the Jefferson Davis County School. a long white wooden building looming in the
distance. Behind the building was a wide sports field around which were scattered rows of tiered gray-looking benches. In
front of it were two yellow buses, our own tormentor and one that brought students from the other direction, and loitering
students awaiting the knell of the morning bell. In the very center of the expansive front lawn, waving red, white and blue
with the emblem of the Confederacy emblazoned in its upper left-hand corner. was the Mississippi nag. Directly below it was
the American flag. As Jeremy and his sister and brothers hurried reward those transposed flags, we turned eastward toward
our own school.
The Great Faith Elementary and Secondary School, one of the largest black schools in the county, was a dismal end to an
hour's journey. Consisting of four weather-beaten wooden houses on stilts of brick. 320 students, seven teachers. a principal.
a caretaker, and the caretaker's cow, which kept the wide crabgrass lawn sufficiently clipped in spring and summer, the
school was located near three plantations, the largest and closest by far being the Granger plantation. Most of the students
were from families that sharecropped on Granger land, and the others mainly from Montier and Harrison plantation families.
Because the students were needed in the fields from early spring when the cotton was planted until after most of the cotton
had been picked in the fall, the school adjusted its terms accordingly, beginning in October and dismissing in March. But
even so, after today a number of the older students would not be seen again for a month or two, not until the last puff of
cotton had been gleaned from the fields, and eventually most would drop out of school altogether. Because of this the classes
in the higher grades grew Smaller with each passing year.
The class buildings, with their backs practically against the forest wall, formed a semicircle facing a small one-room church
at the opposite edge of the compound. It was to this church that many of the school's students and their parents belonged. As
we arrived, the enormous iron bell in the church belfry was ringing vigorously, warning the milling students that only five
minutes of freedom remained.
Little Man immediately pushed his way across the lawn to the well. Stacey and T.J., ignoring the rest of us now that they
were on the school grounds, wandered off to be with the other seventh-grade boys, and Christopher-John and Claude rushed
to reunite with their classmates of last year. Left alone, I dragged slowly to the building that held the first four grades and sat
on the bottom step. Plopping my pencils and notebook into the dirt, I propped my elbows on my knees and rested my chin in
the palms of my hands.
'Hey, Cassie,' said Mary Lou Wellever, the principal's daughter, as she flounced by in a new yellow dress.
'Hey, yourself,' I said, scowling so ferociously that she kept on walking. I stared after her a moment noting that she would
have on a new dress. Certainly no one else did. Patches on faded pants and dresses abounded on boys and girls come so
recently from the heat of the cotton fields. Girls stood awkwardly, afraid to sit, and boys pulled restlessly at starched, high-
buttoned collars. Those students fortunate enough to have shoes hopped from one pinched foot to the other. Tonight the
Sunday clothes would be wrapped in newspaper and hung for Sunday and the shoes would be packed away to be brought out
again only when the weather turned so cold that bare feet could no longer traverse the frozen roads: but for today we all
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