It was not right. It was not wrong. It was. Like stars are. There. Like men and women are. No different from rivers or ravines, caves, hills. Betty didn't care about notions that divided men and women from rocks and fish. It was. She was. Her children were blessings because she had them. She couldn't watch her off spring with disdain the way she'd seen other women look at their master's broods. The pain of carrying hatred round in her body, in the hair that flowed down her back, was too ugly to leave any room for her. She had to be because her girls were, because the wind blows and stars decorate the night, sometimes falling into the laps of lovers, the currents of twisting creeks, the moist black of dream, and the song of her mother. Crepe myrtle spread over the grave of the father of her children like her arms and hair use'ta cover them aft er the act. He never touched her meanly, with the stinginess folks assumed. There was no hate between them. There was a chasm of fate, cowardice, and the inevitability of men and women seeing nothing but one another, smelling nothing but the scent of the other. That's all Betty understood. It was enough for her to curl neath the flowing crepe myrtle and let the pulse of his breath calm her. He was good for that.
She carefully laid the pictures of their children over the granite carved with the letters of his name, Julius Mayfield, and told him all she could about each child because he would hear from her no more.
I'm still amazed, Betty thought to herself, how somebody standing way from me that I never seen before, with his head under some black cloth, bad luck there for sure, makin' poofs, puffs, what ever, some dusting of the sky with soot, with smoke, with my soul maybe, hope not. Stranger come and we give up hard-earned money to look at pictures of ourselfs. Like mirrors wasn't enough. Like the reflection of you in my eyes to your eyes wasn't the Lord letting our insides out into the other. There are ways to remember and put back together what ever it was you want to recollect. Seems to me a laziness come over folks preventin' them from going deep down to the gut of all they ever been and tellin' somebody, if somebody want to know.
Don't know why Julius was so taken witht hese here whatchu call em, oh, photongraphs, no daguerrographs. Oh, who in the Lord's world want to know what they callt? All I know is Julius went to Paris, France, as a young man and came back besotted with this newfangled invention. Done built hisself a black room to fiddle around makin' em, an invited every wandering 'tographer on the road to the house to make more, talkin' bout they "art" all night long. But I found a path through them black-and-whites thinner than pastry dough, less supple than bark, more costly than lace, I say I found me a way to put some blood life back in the still of my children's eyes, they limbs caught in the air like dead folks shaped the way a fool wan to remember, with they smiles pained or pushed way past a lie. Oh, yes, Saints be praised, I can read some life into these pictures, make my family come back to life. Only funny thing bout it, they still coming back in black and white, that the only true thing bout em. Black n white. Niggahs n peckawoods. Enough to make me find some dark funny in all this. Can't get through my children's eyes. If you can't make your way through black and white in a heap of entanglement and haints, good and evil, always nearby to help us, or at least me, find my way through what all I done or what done come up with me. No matter.
Whoa! That's a tellin' one, this one with all them niggahs and white folks favorin' one nother. We relatives, but cain't tell nobody. All them fancy white women - they all cousins or aunts or some kin could be named for sure. The black one to the right in the muslin skirts, that's my Ma, but she paid for them skirts what was given to her by the white man, yes, the one in the center with authority like he God, he reignin' over the land. That's the world of a plantation, Sweet Tamarind, where this was took. My chirren there, too. His chirren, but cain't tell nobody (like you cain't tell by lookin'). Anyway, Ma she paid for all them slips and the lace by her wrists with plenty strap marks down her back. Some so raw the cloth stuck to her flesh where it turned inside out from the lash and the weft of the cloth liked to growed into her like she was a new kinda crop they playin' round with to see what's more productive. Well, you can see lookin' at her, lookin' at me and my young ones, we was sure nough productive. Shame. Shame on a man who is Grandpa and Pa to his own kith n kin. Then goin' to turn round an ignore em, like she wasn't his daughter cause she was dark like indigo, like the night quiet ringin' with sounds of water courtin' the winds, tree limbs rockin' niggahs to sleep or shakin' em wake if they gotta gal to visit fore sun-up. Keep tellin' myself ain't no sin in bearin' no child when there ain't no choice. And the Good Lord know, I got respect for the living and the dead. Cain't nobody come sayin' my babies ain't gotta right to live. Slave or free, they's the bounty of God. That makes em worth lovin' and lookin' after, whether you, Julius Mayfield, ever come to realize you wasn't the Almighty or not. My chirren deserved respect cause they alive. How could that be such a hard idea to get to? Even if we was jus' a pack of hounds. Folks love they dogs. I love my daughters. My ma loved me when she could, fore that witch Master Mayfield callt a wife most beat her to death and left her in her good dress bleedin' blue and no more a distraction to her than some dust on a table leg. Said she didn't notice no bleedin' negress nowhere. Couldn't recall any colored woman missin' that mornin' neither.
Excerpted from Some Sing, Some Cry by Ntozake Shange and Ifa Bayeza. Copyright © 2010 by Ntozake Shange and Ifa Bayeza. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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