Excerpt from Wade in the Water by Nyani Nkrumah, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Wade in the Water

A Novel

by Nyani Nkrumah

Wade in the Water by Nyani Nkrumah X
Wade in the Water by Nyani Nkrumah
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2023, 320 pages

    Jan 30, 2024, 368 pages


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"My mother would turn in her grave," she'd often complain. When I asked Stevie why, he said it was because Ma's father was a white lawyer, and her ma was a mulatto seamstress. I didn't know what it meant then, but from the proud way Stevie said it, I knew it somehow made Ma better and more genteel than everyone else.

* * *

I did chores for Nate on Saturdays, mostly helping him clean the diner and earning three dollars for my trouble. It was Nate who had bandaged my knee at age five when I was too scared to go home and tell Ma that I had jumped off Kitty Hawk Bridge, right into the Big Black River because Fats dared me.

For many years, Nate's Diner used to be called Catchedy Groceries, white-owned and the town's only family grocery store. It was the only store that had not been burned to the ground during the Ricksville riots of 1964 that followed the murders of the civil rights workers later called the Freedom Summer murders. Joe Catchedy had died in 1971, and eventually, with pressure from an incoming grocery chain, his ailing wife sold off its contents and closed the doors. The store had stood empty over two years until the townsfolk finally talked about pulling it down. Nate later told Ma that someone started a rumor that the store was infested with termites, "damn near about to topple down and maim someone," while others talked about what an eyesore it had become.

Then, early one spring morning, while the white town council members met to discuss the dilapidated store at their monthly town council meeting, Nate, who was in those days the town drunk, walked unsteadily to Mrs. Catchedy's back door and demanded to see the old lady. Meeting resistance from Lucille, the black housekeeper, he forced his way past her to the door of Mrs. Catchedy's sickroom. In the darkened room, he gently took off his hat, made his apologies, and humbly whispered that he would like to buy the store. It was later said that Mrs. Catchedy had looked him in the eye and said, "But you're a drunk, Nate. Nothing but a drunk nigger."

Nate had slowly moved forward till he was right up close to the bed, and there he had whispered some words, all the while his head bowed and his eyes not even meeting hers. According to Lucille, who had stood at the door trembling with fear at the thought of what the crazy black man would do, Mrs. Catchedy, who hadn't gotten out of bed in a year, waved her over and, with the use of her walker and guiding hands, Lucille on one hand and Nate on the other, walked clear across the large hall to her husband's study and handed Nate the papers. Paid enough for it over the years was the rumor, for those white folks were all about business right to the very end.

I heard Miss Claudia, who was my friend Cammy's ma, say that a few trouble stirrers slyly hinted that there was some bizarre sexual relationship between Nate and Mrs. Catchedy, but she said that was the nonsense talkers, since it wasn't so long ago that you could get strung up for just looking at a white woman. Others said that Nate must have threatened her with all kinds of bad things, but Stevie, knowing Nate's kind nature, merely said the old lady sure knew a good business deal when she saw one, especially when it reached down and bit her in the ass.

Whatever it was, it was said that this was the beginning of the new Nate. He never touched another drop. Sure enough, every Sunday morning, you would find him cold sober as could be, sitting on the front pew at the AME church at the corner of Ricksville and Pike. On Sunday afternoons, townsfolk heading home from window shopping in Louisville town center would see him making his way to Mrs. Catchedy's, walking with a spring in his step, cool as you please, right up those marble front steps of her big mansion. Once I heard Ma saying that black folk never would stop gossiping about that. Even though they all done grown used to the sight with each passing year, they still gossiped, shaking their heads, wondering what made Nate think he was good enough to stride through those rose-colored front doors, just like he owned the place.

Excerpted from Wade in the Water by Nyani Nkrumah. Copyright © 2023 by Nyani Nkrumah. Excerpted by permission of Amistad. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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