'Well, maybe she couldn't help it, Cassie. Maybe she had to do it.'
'Had to do it!' I practically screamed, ‘She didn't have to do nothin' ! She's grown just like that Mr. Simms and she should've
stood up for me. I wouldn't've done her that way.
Stacey put the plank on the ground and leaned against the barn. 'There's things you don't understand. Cassie -'
'And I s'pose you do, huh! Ever since you went down into Louisiana to get Papa last summer you think you know so doggone
much ! Well, I betcha I know one thing. If that had been Papa, he wouldn't've made me apologize! He would've listened to
Stacey sighed and swung open the barn doors.'Well. Papa ... that's different. Bur Big Ma ain't Papa and you can't expect ...'
His voice trailed off as he peered into the barn. Suddenly he cried. 'Cassie, give me that flashlight!' Then, before I could
object. he tore the flashlight from my hand and shone it into the barn.
'What's Mr. Granger's car doing in our barn !' I exclaimed as the silver Packard was unveiled by the light. Without answering
me, Stacey swiftly turned and ran toward the house. I followed closely behind. Throwing open the door to Mama's room, we
stood dumbfounded in the doorway. Instead of Mr. Granger, a tall, handsome man, nattily dressed in a gray pin-striped suit
and vest, stood by the fire with his arm around Big Ma. For a moment we swayed with excitement, then as if by signal we
both cried, 'Uncle Hammer!' and dashed into his arms.
Uncle Hammer was two years older than Papa and, un- married, he came every winter to spend the Christmas sea- son with
us. Like Papa, he had dark, red-brown skin, a square-jawed face, and high cheekbones; yet there was a great difference
between them somehow. His eyes, which showed a great warmth as he hugged and kissed us now, often had a cold, distant
glaze, and there was an aloofness in him which the boys and I could never quite bridge,
When he let us go, Stacey and I both grew consciously shy, and we backed away. I sat down beside Christopher- John and
Little Man, who were silently gazing up at Uncle Hammer, but Stacey stammered, 'Wh-what's Mr. Granger's car doing in our
"That's your Uncle Hammer's car,' Mama said. 'Did you unhitch Jack!'
'Uncle Hammer's !' Stacey exclaimed, exchanging shocked glances with me. ‘No kidding!'
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Big Ma stammered, ‘Hammer, you - you went and got a car like Harlan Granger's!'
Uncle Hammer smiled a strange, wry smile. ‘Well, not exactly like it, Mama. Mine's a few months newer. Last year when I
come down here, I was right impressed with that big ole Packard of Mr. Harlan Filmore Granger's and I thought I'd like to
own one myself. It seems that me and Harlan Granger just got the same taste.' He winked slyly at Stacey. 'Don't it, Stacey !'
'You like, maybe we'll all go riding in it one day. If it's all right with your mama.
'Oh, boy!' cried Little Man.
'You mean it, Uncle Hammer!' I asked. ‘Mama, can we!'
'We'll see,' Mama said. ‘But in any case, not tonight. Stacey, go take care of Jack and draw up a bucket of water for the
kitchen. We've done the other chores.'
Since no one told me to help Stacey, I forgot all about Jack and settled back to listen to Uncle Hammer. Christopher-John and
Little Man, who Big Ma had feared would be moping because they had not been allowed to go to town, seemed not at all
concerned that Stacey and I had gone. They were awestruck by Uncle Hammer, and compared to his arrival a day in
Strawberry was a minor matter.
For a while Uncle Hammer talked only to Mama and Big Ma, laughing from deep down inside himself like Papa, but then to
my surprise he turned from them and addressed me. 'I understand you had your first trip to Strawberry today, Cassie,' he said.
‘What did you think !'
Big Ma stiffened, but I was pleased to have this opportunity to air my side of the Strawberry affair. ‘I didn't like it,' I said.
'Them ole Simmses -
'Mary, I feel a bit hungry,' Big Ma interrupted abruptly. 'Supper still warm !'
'Yes, ma'am,' said Mama standing. 'I'll set it on the table for you.
As Mama stood up, I started again. 'Them ole Simmses - 'Let Cassie get it, Mary.' said Big Ma nervously. ‘You must be tired.
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I looked strangely at Big Ma, then up at Mama.
'Oh, I don't mind,' said Mama, heading for the kitchen. 'Go ahead, Cassie, and tell your uncle about Strawberry.
'That ole Lillian Jean Simms made me so mad I could just spit. I admit that I bumped into her, but that was 'cause I was
thinking 'bout that ole Mr. Barnett waiting on every- body else in his ole Store 'fore he waited on us - 'Jim Lee Barnett!' asked
Uncle Hammer, turning to- ward Big Ma. That ole devil still living!' Big Ma nodded mutely, and I went on. ‘But I told him he
shouldn't've been 'round there waiting on everybody else 'fore he got to us -
'Cassie!' Big Ma exclaimed, hearing this bit of news for the first time.
Uncle Hammer laughed. ‘You told him that i'
'Yessir,' I said softly, wondering why he was laughing.
'Oh, that's great ! Then what happened!'
'Stacey made me leave and Mr. Barnett told me I couldn't come back no more and then I bumped into that confounded Lillian
Jean and she tried to make me get off the sidewalk and then her daddy come along and he -
Big Ma's eyes grew large and she whispered hoarsely, 'Cassie, I don't think -
- and he twisted my arm and knocked me off the side- walk!' I exclaimed, unwilling to muffle what Mr. Simms had done. I
glanced triumphantly at Big Ma, but she wasn't looking at me. Her eyes, frightened and nervous, were on Uncle Hammer. I
turned and looked at him too.
His dark eyes had narrowed to thin, angry slits. He said; 'He knocked you off the sidewalk, Cassie! A grown man knocked
you off the sidewalk?'
This Lillian Jean Simms, her daddy wouldn't be Charlie Simms. would it !'
Uncle Hammer grasped my shoulders. 'What else he do to you !'
'N-nothin'.' I said, frightened by his eyes. "Cepting he wanted me to apologize to Lillian Jean 'cause I wouldn't get in the road
when she told me to.'
'And you did?'
'Big Ma said I had to.'
Uncle Hammer released me and sat very still. No one said a word. Then he stood slowly, his eyes icing into that cold distant
way they could, and he started toward the door, limping slightly on his left leg. Christopher-John. Little Man, and I stared
after him wonderingly, but Big Ma jumped up from her chair, knocking it over in her haste, and dashed after him. She
grabbed his arm. ‘Let it be, son!' she cried. 'That child ain't hurt !'
'Not hurt! You look into her eyes and tell me she ain't hurt !'
Mama came back from the kitchen with Stacey behind her. ‘What is it!' she asked, looking from Big Ma to Uncle Hammer.
'Charlie Simms knocked Cassie off the sidewalk in Straw- berry and the child just told Hammer,' said Big Ma in one breath,
still holding on to Uncle Hammer's arm.
'Oh, Lord,' Mama groaned. ‘Stacey, get Mr. Morrison. Quick, now!' As Stacey sped from the room, Mama's eyes darted to the
shotgun over the bed, and she edged between it and Uncle Hammer. Uncle Hammer was watching her and he said quietly,
‘Don’t worry. I ain't gotta use David's gun... I got my own.'
Suddenly Mama lunged to the side door, blocking it with her slender body. 'Hammer, now you listen to me -
But Uncle Hammer gently but firmly pushed her to one side and, brushing Big Ma from his arm, opened the door and
bounded down the steps into the light rain.
Little Man, Christopher-John, and I dashed to the door as Big Ma and Mama ran after him. ‘Get back inside,' Mama called
over her shoulder, but she was too busy trying to grab Uncle Hammer to see to it that we obeyed, and we did not move.
‘Hammer, Cassie's all right,' she cried. ‘Don’t go making unnecessary trouble !'
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'Unnecessary trouble! You think my brother died and I got my leg half blown off in their German war to have some red-neck
knock Cassie around anytime it suits him! If I'd've knocked his girl down, you know what'd've happened to me! Yeah, you
know all right. Right now I'd be hanging from that oak over yonder. Let go of me, Mary.
Mama and Big Ma could not keep him from reaching the car. But just as the Packard roared to life, a huge figure loomed
from the darkness and jumped into the other side, and the car zoomed angrily down the drive into the black- ness of the
'Where'd he gel' I asked as Mama slowly climbed the steps. Her face under the glow of the lamp was tired, drained. 'He went
up to the Simmses', didn't he! Didn't he, Mama?'
'He's not going anywhere,' Mama said, stepping aside and waiting until both Big Ma and Stacey were inside; then she locked
'Mr. Morrison'll bring him back,' said Christopher-John confidently, although he looked somewhat bewildered by all that had
'If he don't,' said Little Man ominously, 'I betcha Uncle Hammer'll teach that ole Mr. Simms a thing or two. 'Round here
hitting on Cassie,'
'I hope he knocks his block off,' I said.
Mama's gaze blazed down upon us. 'I think little mouths that have so much to say must be very tired.'
'No, ma'am, Mama, we ain't -
'Go to bed.'
'Mama, it ain't but -' Mama's face hardened, and I knew that it would not be in my best interest to argue further; I turned and
did as I was told. Christopher-John and Little Man did the same. When I got to my door, I asked, 'Ain't Stacey coming!'
Mama glanced down at Stacey sitting by the fire. ‘I don't recall his mouth working so hard, do you !'
'No'm,' I muttered and went into my room. After a few minutes Mama came in. Without a word of reprimand, she picked up
my clothes from where I had tossed them at the foot of the bed, and absently draping them over the back of a chair, she said,
‘Stacey tells me you blame Big Ma for what happened today. Is that right?'
I thought over her question and answered, 'Not for all of it. Just for making me apologize to that ole dumb Lillian Jean
Simms. She oughtn't've done that, Mama. Papa wouldn't've -'
'I don't want to hear what Papa wouldn't have done!' Mama snapped. 'Or what Mr. Morrison wouldn't have done or Uncle
Hammer ! You were with Big Ma and she did what she had to do and believe me, young lady, she didn't like doing it one bit
more than you did.'
'Well,' I muttered, 'maybe so, but..?’
'There's no maybe to it.'
'Yes'm,' I said softly, deciding that it was better to study the patchwork pattern on the quilt until the anger left Mama's eyes
and I could talk to her again. After a moment she sat beside me on the bed and raised my chin with the tip of her forefinger.
‘Big Ma didn't want you to be hurt,' she said. That was the only thing on her mind ... making sure Mr. Simms didn't hurt you.'
'Yes'm,' I murmured, then flared, ‘But, Mama, that Lillian Jean ain't got the brains of a flea! How come I gotta go 'round
calling her "Miz" like she grown or something!'
Mama's voice grew hard. ‘Because that's the way of things, Cassie.'
The way of what things?' I asked warily.
'Baby, you had to grow up a little today. I wish... well, no matter what I wish. It happened and you have to accept the fact that
in the world outside this house, things are not always as we would have them to be.'
'But, Mama, it ain't fair. I didn't do nothin' to that con- founded Lillian Jean. How come Mr. Simms went and pushed me like
Mama's eyes looked deeply into mine, locked into them, and she said in a tight, clear voice, ‘Because he thinks Lillian Jean is
better than you are, Cassie, and when you -
'That ole scrawny, chicken-legged, snaggle-toothed, cross -
'Cassie.' Mama did not raise her voice, but the quiet force of my name silenced me. ‘Now,' she said, folding my hand in hers,
‘I didn't say that Lillian Jean is better than you. I said Mr. Simms only thinks she is. In fact, he thinks she's better than Stacey
or Little Man or Christopher-John -
'Just 'cause she's his daughter!' I asked, beginning to think Mr. Simms was a bit touched in the head.
'No, baby, because she's white.'
Mama's hold tightened on mine, but I exclaimed, 'Ah, shoot ! White ain't nothin' !'
Mama's grip did not lessen. 'It is something, Cassie. White is something just like black is something. Everybody born on this
earth is something and nobody, no matter what color, is better than anybody else.'
Then how come Mr. Simms don't know that?'
'Because he's one of those people who has to believe that white people are better than black people to make himself feel big.' I
stared questioningly at Mama, not really under- standing. Mama squeezed my hand and explained further. 'You see, Cassie,
many years ago when our people were first brought from Africa in chains to work as slaves in this country -
'Like Big Ma's papa and mama !'
Mama nodded. 'Yes, baby, like Papa Luke and Mama Rachel, except they were born right here in Mississippi. But their
grandparents were born in Africa, and when they came there were some white people who thought that it was wrong for any
people to be slaves; so the people who needed slaves to work in their fields and the people who were making money bringing
slaves from Africa preached that black people weren't really people like white people were, so slavery was all right.
'They also said that slavery was good for us because it taught us to be good Christians - like the white people.' She sighed
deeply, her voice fading into a distant whisper. 'But they didn't teach us Christianity to save our souls, but to teach us
obedience. They were afraid of slave revolts and they wanted us to learn the Bible's teaching about slaves being loyal to their
masters. But even teaching us Christianity didn't make us stop wanting to be free, and many slaves ran away -
'Papa Luke ran away, I reminded her, thinking of the story of how Great-Grandpa had run away three times. He had been
caught and punished for his disobedience, but his owners had not tried to break him, for he had had a knowledge of herbs and
cures. He had tended both the slaves and the animals of the plantation, and it was from him that Big Ma had learned
Mama nodded again. That's right, honey. He was hiding in a cave when freedom came, so I understand.' She was silent a
moment, then went on. ‘Well, after a while. slavery became so profitable to people who had slaves and even to those who
didn't that most folks decided to believe that black people really weren't people like everybody else. And when the Civil War
was fought and Mama Rachel and Papa Luke and all the other slaves were freed, people continued to think that way. Even the
Northerners who fought the war didn't really see us equal to white people. So now, even though seventy years have passed
since slavery, most white people still think of us as they did then - that we're not as good as they are - and people like Mr.
Simms hold on to that belief harder than some other folks because they have little else to hold on to. For him to believe that
he is better than we are makes him think that he's important, simply because he's white.'
Mama relaxed her grip. I knew that she was waiting for me to speak. There was a sinking feeling in my stomach and I felt as
if the world had turned itself upside down with me in it. Then I thought of Lillian Jean and a surging anger gurgled upward
and I retaliated, ‘Well, they ain't!' But I leaned closer to Mama, anxiously hoping that she would agree with me.
'Of course they aren't,' Mama said. ‘White people may demand our respect, but what we give them is not respect but fear.
What we give to our own people is far more important because it's given freely. Now you may have to call Lillian Jean
"Miss" because the white people say so, but you'll also call our own young ladies at church "Miss" be- cause you really do
'Baby, we have no choice of what color we're born or who our parents are or whether we're rich or poor. What we do have is
some choice over what we make of our lives once we're here.' Mama cupped my face in her hands. ‘And I pray to God you'll
make the best of yours.' She hugged me warmly then and motioned me under the covers.
As she turned the lamp down low, I asked, ‘Mama. Uncle Hammer. If Mr. Morrison can't stop him, what'll happen!' 'Mr.
Morrison will bring him back.'
'But just what if he can't and Uncle Hammer gets to Mr. Simms!'
A shadowy fear fleeted across her face, but disappeared with the dimming light. ‘I think ... I think you've done enough
growing up for one day, Cassie,' she said without answering my question, ‘Uncle Hammer'll be all right. Now go to sleep.'
Mama had been right about Uncle Hammer. When I awoke the next morning and followed the smell of frying ham and
baking biscuits into the kitchen, there he sat at the table drinking coffee with Mr. Morrison. He was unshaven and looked a bit
bleary-eyed, but he was all right: I wondered if Mr. Simms looked so good. I didn't get a chance to ask, because as soon as I
had said good morning Mama called me into her room, where a tub of hot water was waiting by the fireplace.
'Hurry up,' she said. ‘Uncle Hammer's going to take us to church.'
'In his car!'
Mama's brow furrowed. 'Well, I just don't know. He did say something about hitching up Jack ...
My smile faded, but then I caught the teasing glint in her eyes, and she began to laugh, 'Ah, Mama!' I laughed, and splashed
into the water.
After my bath I went into my room to dress. When I rejoined Mama she was combing her hair, which fanned her head like an
enormous black halo. As I watched, she shaped the long thickness into a large chignon at the nape of her neck and stuck six
sturdy hairpins into it. Then, giving the chignon a pat, she reached for her pale-blue cotton dress sprinkled with tiny yellow-
and-white flowers and polished white buttons running from top to bottom along its front. She glanced down at me. ‘You
didn't comb your hair.
'No'm, I want you to fix me my grown-up hairdo.' Mama began buttoning the top of her dress with long, flying fingers as I
slowly fastened the lower buttons. I loved to help Mama dress. She always smelled of sunshine and soap. When the last
button had slipped into place, she buckled a dark-blue patent-leather belt around her tiny waist and stood ready except for her
shoes. She looked very pretty.
'Where's your brush?'
'Right here,' I said, picking up the brush from where I had laid it on the chair.
Mama sat down in Papa's rocker and I sat on the deerskin rug in front of her. Mama divided my hair from ear to ear into two
sections and braided the front section to one side and the back section right in the center. Then she wound each braid into a
flat chignon against my head. My hair was too thick and long for me to do it well myself, but Mama could do it perfectly. I
figured I looked my very best that way.
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