A man who buys books because they're pretty
My mother and father were born in the most beautiful place on earth, in the foothills of the Appalachians along the Alabama-Georgia line. It was a place where gray mists hid the tops of low, deep-green mountains, where redbone and bluetick hounds flashed through the pines as they chased possums into the sacks of old men in frayed overalls, where old women in bonnets dipped Bruton snuff and hummed "Faded Love and Winter Roses" as they shelled purple hulls, canned peaches and made biscuits too good for this world. It was a place where playing the church piano loud was near as important as playing it right, where fearless young men steered long, black Buicks loaded with yellow whiskey down roads the color of dried blood, where the first frost meant hog killin' time and the mouthwatering smell of cracklin's would drift for acres from giant, bubbling pots. It was a place where the screams of panthers, like a woman's anguished cry, still haunted the most remote ridges and hollows in the dead of night, where children believed they could choke off the cries of night birds by circling one wrist with a thumb and forefinger and squeezing tight, and where the cotton blew off the wagons and hung like scraps of cloud in the branches of trees.
It was about 120 miles west of Atlanta, about 100 miles east of Birmingham, close to nothin' but that dull red ground. Life here between the meandering dirt roads and skinny blacktop was full, rich, original and real, but harsh, hard, mean as a damn snake. My parents grew up in the 1940s and 1950s in the poor, upland South, a million miles from the Mississippi Delta and the Black Belt and the jasmine-scented verandas of what most people came to know as the Old South. My ancestors never saw a mint julep, but they sipped five-day-old likker out of ceramic jugs and Bell jars until they could not remember their Christian names.
Men paid for their plain-plank houses and a few acres of land by sawing and hand-lifting pulpwood onto ragged trucks for pennies a ton. They worked in the blast furnace heat of the pipe shops, loaded boxcars at the clay pits and tended the nerve gas stockpiles at the army base, carrying caged birds to test for leaks. They coaxed crops to grow in the up-country clay that no amount of fertilizer would ever turn into rich bottomland, tried in vain to keep their fingers, hands and arms out of the hungry machinery of the cotton mills, so that the first thing you thought when you saw an empty sleeve was not war, but the threshing racks. The summers withered the cotton and corn and the tornado season lasted ten months, making splinters out of their barns, twisting the tin off their roofs, yanking their tombstones out of the ground. Their women worked themselves to death, their mules succumbed to worms and their children were crippled by rickets and perished from fever, but every Sunday morning The Word leaked out of little white-wood sanctuaries where preachers thrust ragged Bibles at the rafters and promised them that while sickness and poverty and Lucifer might take their families, the soul of man never dies.
White people had it hard and black people had it harder than that, because what are the table scraps of nothing? This was not the genteel and parochial South, where monied whites felt they owed some generations-old debt to their black neighbors because their great-great-grandfather owned their great-great-grandfather. No one I knew ever had a mammy. This was two separate states, both wanting and desperate, kept separate by hard men who hid their faces under hoods and their deeds under some twisted interpretation of the Bible, and kicked the living shit out of anyone who thought it should be different. Even into my own youth, the orange fires of shacks and crosses lit up the evening sky. It seems a cliché now, to see it on movie screens. At the time, it burned my eyes.
Use of this excerpt from All Over but the Shoutin' by Rick Bragg may be made only for purposes of promoting the book, with no changes, editing or additions whatsoever and must be accompanied by the following copyright notice: copyright© 1997 by Rick Bragg.
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