When I was a kid I lived in a house full of drunks. Not run of the mill drunks, I mean drunks that had doilies on tables and dusted every inch of the house until it was spotless. These were people who used to pick cotton and were terribly ashamed of it. I remember the one and only time I found a book on the top of my grandmother’s ivory wardrobe. It had numbers and names and was ancient. When I found it I took it to my great-grandpa cause he always told me the truth. And then the truth only needed to be that I was loved and adored and there was no other little girl in the world and beautiful and good as me.
When my Granny, his wife, saw that he was explaining the book to me she went ballistic. I never understood why because to me I had history in my hands. My granddad was explaining that this was the book they kept their sharecropping records in.
Anyway, these people drank and drank a lot. My Granny, had my Grandma, when she was 14 years old and Granddad was 21. These weren’t mature people. And they were suddenly in the north with a new set of rules and regulations and Chicago in the 30’s was almost as bad as Jackson, Mississippi- well I guess at anytime by my reckoning. So they drank and had fun (as far as I could see) and lived it up with the relatively few minor freedoms they got to have in the north. Like buying a house in what was previously a majority white neighborhood that would eventually become the murder capital of the city in the next 50 years.
What I realize now is that they were depressed and sad and living unfulfilled lives. They also didn’t know how to nurture us. They didn’t know how to nurture themselves; they hadn’t come from a nurturing environment. The legacy of The South still complicates the lives of those who escaped its horrors. I still live with the legacy of Jim Crow because Jim Crow people raised me. People who now theoretically had more freedoms, but also knew that Chicago’s Jim Crow could be worse. So what do they do with this baby born in the 1970’s without any knowledge of the systems they needed to survive? They teach her the same rules while telling her to fly away, but not too high. And not too fast.
The shames and inadequacies they felt when sober came out in a wale when they were tight. You could hear it in their laughter, the freedom of it. I guess that’s why I always thought they were having such a good time. I rarely saw them this free. But that freedom came with a cost, because as I’m learning in my life, you pay for that freedom the next morning with guilt and more shame. Living a whole life embarrassed and not wanting to pass that embarrassment to your children. It’s living in the fear that a misplaced word will display the short educations prescribed to children who had to work. Not wanting to pass on a shame that you don’t even have the language to denounce. It’s just a feeling.
It feels like sinking. It felt like my body was actually sinking and drowning. My chest would tighten, my skin would go prickly cold and my throat would go dry. Like all of my moisture was evaporating and I was becoming like stone. And then I would turn off. The messages getting yelled at me were getting through, but how I felt about them never really developed past that sense of dread. I get that feeling less often now, but when I was a kid it was constantly overwhelming.
Seeing that book was one of those times that I was conscience that the wrath I was getting had nothing to do with me. It was embarrassment on my Grandma’s part because she was almost hysterical. She told my Grandpa he had no right to show me this book and it was hers. He explained what he was doing, but the reason Grandpa and I had so much time to discuss the book was because she was off taking a nip. I’m sure she fully expected to come back in the room and watch one of her stories, but instead she sees the proof that she picked cotton in the south and whatever that entailed on the lap of her great granddaughter.
The great granddaughter that was going to be proof that they were all okay. She was going to rise above her roots and make everyone so proud. But I didn’t understand that either. I didn’t know there was anything in our lives to be ashamed of (except for the drinking part- that got complicated for me to beg off friends visits).