Hold On, Hold On...
by Henry Hardee
We are down in Mississippi to see some of our people. Mama and daddie tell me all the time that family comes first and I have a responsibility to them because they gave me my almond shaped eyes, da cotton flower birth mark on my left thigh and my narrow behind that can't hold up a pair of pants. They tell me and my sisters: Denise, Cynthia, Addie Mae and Carole that we have to help family and we have a debt to pay to all colored people because without them we wouldn't be here.
We've been driving down here every summer since I was six years old when daddie got a GOOD job with the Illinois Bell Phone Company and made enough money to bring us to see where he was born. I am twelve years old now and Mississippi is on fire about skin color.
On the drive down here that's all that mama and daddie talk about. I watch the lips on daddies's his heart-shaped face move as he talks without taking his eye off the road ,
"Dem Southern white bastards- (for give me lord), dem SWBs ain't no better than us. Both of us got hearts that beat, got warm blood running though our veins and children that we want the best for. We both should be able to go in the same store and buy some socks and underwear without Jim Crow placards hangin over them to make sure coloredfolks pay more than whitefolks for the same merchandise. We all should be able to go out at night and enjoy the beauty of the stars without worryin about someone coming up on us and putting a bullet in our heads but it ain't like that in Mississippi! Coloredfolks and whitefolks stand on two different sides of the fence. Coloreds got to shoot marbles from all sides because white folks think they are better than us. They don't even want to eat in the same restaurants with us, sit next to us while they are watchin a movie, drink after us at a water fountain or go to the bathroom after us."
Just as he got his last word out mama ( who is the choir director at our church in Chicago) jumped in and went to singin,
" ...hold on, hooooold on/ keep your EYES on the PRIZE/ and hooo-oold on!"
I really don't know why Miss. (Mississippi) is the way it is. I just know it is against colored folks. I feel it while we drive down Roy Bryant Street. The store on the corner has a new confederate flag slung over a red and white Coke Cola sign and a lauder-ama that says you can wash nine pounds of clothes for twenty-five cents that has a big white sign with black letters in the front window sayin, "White Only!" As we drive pass an outhouse with "Colored Only Dining Room" on the front of it some of the SWBs walking down the street saw that we were colored and started shaking their fists at us and pointing, "Niggers yall don't belong on dis heah street!" It seem like doin evil to colored folks make them feel good. It seem like treatin colored folks like we ain't fit to live in the world comes natural to them. I don't understand my mama and daddie- the colored folks we see on our way to my Aunt Curlee Ree's house look like they want to hurry up and get out of Miss and go North and here we are heading South from the North. Daddie left this place thirteen years ago but keeps coming back to it like he's Harriet Tubman sneaking slaves out on the Underground Railroad.
We have been here for two weeks. We are staying at my Aunt Curlee Ree's. She has a nice house. The outside is painted red like a barn with the window frames trimmed with white. It is small, clean and comfortable. She don't have any real expensive stuff but it smells like homemade cooking which I ain't had too much of since mama started doing day work. The first night Curlee Ree put a new RED, BLACK and GREEN bedspread on her son's bed to make me feel welcome. My sisters have to share a room that has a full size bed and two cots. Mama and daddy are glad to sleep on the hide-a-way bed couch. Curlee Ree keeps saying she is glad to have us -"Yall family make yourself at home! Yall want something to eat?"
We have just come in from a church meeting where the preacher brought down the Word from on High,
"God got his hands on us children. The laws that bind us are man-made laws and the laws of God urge us to stand fast in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage like it says in Galatians 5:1.
I want these kinds of meeting at Mt Zion because I believe we have been called by God to fight and deliver our people from injustice, maltreatment, persecution, subjugation and brutalization. We are a church that cares about the problems we Negroes have to face these days. Martin Luther King Jr. says,
“Any religion that professes to be concerned with the souls of men and is not concerned with the slums that dam them, the economic conditions that strangle them, and the social conditions that cripple them is as dry-as-dust religion.' We are not a dry church. We are wet from violating the laws of segregation, wet with the sweat of having to dodge bullets because the Klu Klux Klan wants us to stop talking about freedom, wet with the tear drops we have shed for our dead loved ones whose killer's have not been found.
This church is tiahed of waitin for this whitefolks government to give us our freedom. We know even if they do they are going to take it back like they did in the 1800s. They took back our right to vote-aha! They took back our land -aha!
It's time for us to step up to Jim Crow and break his face. It time for us to let him know that we are going to win our dignity and manhood and womanhood and peoplehood back. It time for him to know that his clubs, german sheppards, guns and hoses ain't gonna turn us around. We want to tell the people of England and Europe that the white men in America are inhuman brutes and that they should be ashamed that they are their sons.
This man's country ain't never been free for colored folks. We have had to pay a price-aha! We have paid with our blood, we have paid with our backs. We have paid-Lord have mussy, with our lives."
Because Mama is a guest and a choir director they let her call the lines to a freedom song that everybody in the congregation responded to, "This little light of mine (I'm gonna let it shine) Let it shine let it shine, (let it shine, let it shine.") She changed the words in the second verse, "All in the street (I'm gonna let it shine.") She changed the words in the third verse, " All in the jail house (I'm gonna let it shine,) let it shine, let it shine, (let it shine.") The grown folks stood up on their feet and held hands. Singin a cappella and making music by stompin their feet all their voices became one voice, a voice that dem SWBs wouldn't be able to tolerate hearing , a voice that sang, "Lord have mercy on this lying America-it is not the land of the free!" The song is suppose to last two minutes but it lasted for more than an hour. It is filled with emotions. It is packed with the memories of Medgar Evers' and Emmett Tills' deaths. It gave the people in the church inspiration to keep on fighting, inspiration to keep on trying to register to vote even though they might get drown in the Mississippi River. They are going to take that song and sing it at sit-ins, voter registration drives, boycotts, strikes, school desegregation campaigns, marches and freedom rides. The sounds of their bass, baritone and alto, soprano voices said how they felt about Jim Crow who made "White" text books different from "Colored" text books and the "Colored" schools worth less than the "White" ones that they send their children to. The high and lows sounds of the notes coming out of their mouths are saying it's not fair that colored folks can't get jobs and can't vote without trickerations to keep them from voting.
After the singing stopped the preacher started speaking the words of Martin Luther King Jr. again as he stood on the black and red pulpit surrounded by deacons'
"'My mother took me on her lap and began telling me about slavery and how it had ended in the Civil War...You are as good as any one.'- Let me preach it to you children let me preach it."
"'Being a Negro in America means...being harried by day and hunted by night by a nagging sense of nobodiness and constantly fighting to be saved from the poison of bitterness...'- Can yall hear me up there in the balcony. I know ain't nobody don' went to sleep on me!"
"'For the 35 million poor people in America there is a kind of strangulation in the air. In our society it is murder...to deprive a man of a job. You are in substance saying to that man that he has no right to exist.'- Aha, aha."
After he took a drink of water he said it was God’s will that everybody in the church fill out one of the non-violent pledge/application that the ushers were passing out. . It asked them what they could do for civil rights. I know mama is writing "cook"on her paper and daddie is writing about drivin around the town and helping people fill out their voting rights papers. Deep inside I don't want them to do nothing because I don't want dem SWBs firebombing Aunt Curlee Ree's house (with us in it) or lynchin daddie. I don't want to think about dem SWBs cutting his ears, nose, lips, fingers and private parts off and taking them home for souvenirs after they have thrown gasoline on him, lit a torch and burned his body down to char. I'm scared for myself. My hair is raising up on my neck for my mama and daddie and Curlee Ree and her kids.
Daddie knows what I'm thinking. In the car on the way back to Aunt Curlee Ree’s he strokes my chin, holds my head up , looks me in the eyes and explains that I need to look beyond the beatings, burnings and bombings and see that they were not about colored folks dying but living with dignity, living and being able to do what they want to do.
I hear mama and daddie talkin in the living room while daddie pulls out the hide-a-way bed that's inside the frog green couch. I'm suppose to be sleep but I ain't. I ain't had a good nights sleep since I been down here. I'm wonderin why our people in the South can't just come up North where the whitefolks don't act as big'a fool as they do in Mississippi. I don't mind helpin people when we back at home because we don't have to worry about gittin hosed, havin police dogs sicked on us, gettin burnt up in a church or have grown white people calling us, " coons, niggra's and samboes!"
I watch daddie in his royal purple nightshirt sittin in da bed eatin a piece of Aunt Curlee Ree's fried chicken like it's really good to him, like he can't stop lickin his fingers. He is hummmmin like it's the best chicken he done ever ate. Mama don't like that. She thinks that her chicken is way better than Aunt Curlee Ree's. She unfolds the handkerchief that she keeps pinned to her nightgown just in case she has to finish wipin me or one of my sisters faces in the morning because we have half-dried them with a towel in the bathroom before gettin ready for school. She fans herself because it is a HOT Mississippi summer and wants to cool down, she fans herself because she is annoyed at daddie for eating that chicken. Mama don't like none of us eating anybody else's food but hers and always tells us, " You got to be careful when you eat other people's food cause you don't know what they don' put in it!" I ‘m gettin hungry looking at daddie chewin , gettin hongry thinkin I might not leave the South alive and will have to get shipped back to Chicago in a wooden coffin because I said somethin to a white person the wrong way, at the wrong time and they murdered me . If I got to die I don't want to do it on an empty stomach. If I have to die because I broke one of their segregated rules I want to have some candied yams, pork chops, shelled peas and yeast-raised rolls padding my stomach when I do.
I made it to the kitchen without mama and daddie seein me BUT on my way back to my cousin's room they see me. Mama sees that I have a chicken wing in my hand, a glass of cherry Kool-Aid and a slice of sock-it-to-me cake wrapped up in a piece of waxed paper. She rolls her eyes at me and fans herself. Daddie makes me go back into the kitchen, put a table spoon full of sugar into a glass of cherry Kool-Aid (for him) and bring him a nice big piece of sock-it-to-me cake in a saucer. When I bring it to him Mama fans herself some more and looks funny at both of us. She is going to get us when we get back home, I know it. She starts singing, " This little light of mine/ I'm gonna let it shine/ let it shine/ let it shine."
It is like she is trying to sing herself into a different place. Singin is what mama does when something is gettin on her last nerve. We are gettin on her last nerve by eatin her sister's gospel bird that she always says ‘has too much salt and pepper on it’. She don't like Aunt Curlee Ree's Kool-Aid either because she says ‘ it's never, never sweet enough and is always cherry ‘and ‘didn't she know that Kool-Aid made more than one flavor!’
Singin is what the people in church did too because they were frustrated with SWBs that want to keep them bent over like their hearts are too hard to carry. Who jeer, poke, spit at and throw itching powder on them, who grin when they say ‘I'm sorry we don't serve colored here’, who treat them like coming into the world a colored person don’t mean nothin and want to kill them because of their skin color-- makes them want to spread their lips and sing a freedom song- "I know one thing we did right/ was the day we started to fight/ keep your EYES on the PRIZE/ hold on, hold on!"
Mama is gettin back at me for going to get seconds of Curlee Ree's food when she called me over to the bed asked me to recite what I remembered from the Martin Luther King words I had heard the preacher say at church. I could only remember the first lines of two of them "B-being a Negro...means being a part of the company of the bruised, the battered, the scared, and the defeated..." and bits and pieces of the other parts "...the segregated colored signs on drinking fountains, waiting rooms, lavatories--as social condition rather than a natural order." When I finished stuttering over the words she looked at daddie,
"This is why we got to keep coming down heah. He can't keep nothin in his mind about his own people so he can have some pride in his darkskinned self. I want him to know that Miss is where he comes from and the history of colored folks so he won't grow up thinkin he comes from the nobodies in them "White Only" text books."
I look at mama she got the kind of hair that I want my first girl to have where all she got to do is wet it with water and grease it to make it wavy. I'm mad at mama because she is makin it seem like I don't know nothing in front of daddie. I shake my head and turn up the corner of my upper lip because she didn't stop daddie from dragging us to Miss. to be with his country bumpkin kinfolks !
I fan myself with my hand, fan myself because it is a HOT-hot-hot Mississippi summer, fan myself because I don't want to see a white sheriff holding a shotgun up to my daddie's head and threatening to blow it off because he is helping colored folks to register to vote. I don't want to see mama breakin down and screamin like Emmett Tills' mama in "Jet" magazine because one of her children has been beat up and killed. I don't want to be shipped back to chi...ca...go in an unflowered covered wooden coffin or put in a shallow grave in a Mississippi field where my body can the eaten up by rats. Standing by the side of the bed I put my two cents into it,
"To hell with Mississippi! There is too much fussin goin on here and I want to leave, leave before I'm worse off than when I came , leave before I aint got neither one of yall no more! What am I going to do with you mama, without you daddie? Why yall wanna cook for them marchers and help people vote-THAT don't have nothing to do with us. What we got to do with how these SWBS pick on colored folks to make themselves look better and smarter? How we gonna keep them from cloudin up and rainin down hate on their heads to make them feel like they are less than somethin. Why yall wanna cry and die over things that ain't our business in the first place. We from chi....ca...go! This civil rights mess ain't our problem! I'm tired of walkin on dirt roads. I want to walk on some concrete sidewalks. I want to clean this Miss. dirt off my shoes and go back home before one of us winds up dead!"
Mama looks at me for a long minute. She fans herself with that white cotton handkerchief,
"Baby, we down here fightin for civil rights and f'eedom cause pretty soon we gonna be doin the same thing back in Chicago. Chicago is not as bad as it is down here but it's still racist and colored folks still can't get no jobs and we have to send yall kids to run down schools that sometimes don’t have enough text books to go around!"
Daddie looks around for his belt, for something that he can hit me with and knock some sense into me. He decides to hit me with his words,
"Sit down on the foot of this bed, Amzie and shut your mouth up before I wack you upside your head! You don't know nothing. I brought you down here this year so you can learn how to fight.--show you that sometimes you have to fight for the things that you want in life and fightin is not going to be easy. You gonna have to take and take wrong doing until it knocks you over and when it knocks you over on your back you got to get back up and take some more until you finally get what you want. That's the lesson slaves were taught and the lesson colored people learn every day in this lying country. It's the lesson that is going to see you through your life. It's gonna give you strength and backbone to come through your problems and keep on livin and lovin. That's why colored folks are still alive, they know that they got to keep on goin no matter what gets in their way and keep on tryin no matter how dark it gets. I brought you down here this year because I want you to see that you come from a strong people, uh ummm. Those SWBs are not strong-they are weak. Police dogs, sticks, bottles, jail houses don't make you better than nobody else, don't make you strong--they make you weak. They show that you are afraid of somethin. When you strike out against another man it means you are scared of them. Dese SWBs are scared because they have been wrongin colored folks for so long they are afraid it's goin to come full circle and colored folks are goin to treat them the way they have treated us in the past."
There is a Spirit in the living room. A powerful Spirit. A Spirit that I felt back at Zion while the preacher recited King,"...preponderant evil." It pulled everybody in Aunt Curlee Ree's house into the living room to hear daddie talking ,
"Every colored person got to know that they have greatness inside of them and can raise up their voices to get out from under the whiteman."
His voice sounded like he was about to cry,
"Don't you be scared about who going to be kilt, Amzie. Somebody in this in this house, somebody in this family is going to be here to love you, to hold you no matter what happens. Colored folks been dyin to get our freedom every since them whitefolks from England packed us up worst than sardines in a can on them slave ships. Don't worry about me dyin. I don't mind dyin if it means that you and your sister, your mama, your nieces and nephews will be able to get the best schoolin, be able to grow up and get a job that they don't have to break their back workingon. I want everybody in this family to be able to go to the hospital when they get sick and not be told they can’t be waited on because they colored folks. I want yall to be able to go into the first bathroom you see when you out in public and got to relieve your selves. I want everybody to have the right to vote so we can get these racists on the city council, in the state legislature and the congress out of office. I want everybody in this house to be able to step up into the faces of these SWBs like Moses did to Pharaoh, "Let My People Go!"
My mama and every body else in the livin room looked like they were goin to cry. Daddie's words help me to see why I was down there- I was down here to learn that standin up for your family and your people makes you a man and that there is no greater power than people standin side by side, holdin each others hands and singin together for somethin they believe in. The tears of a man run down my face. I don't want to leave anymore. I want to stay and help fight.
I look around the livin room and realize that everybody there is a part of me, is the livin history of colored people. I don't want them to ever be crushed up and bruised by the word "Coon" again if I could help it. I don't want none of my people hangin their heads and draggin their feet because of what's been written on that outhouse on Roy Bryant Street that tells us colored folks that we should eat white folks turds instead of food.
I'm comin down here every summer until I've helped made this a better place for my family and the other colored folks around here. I'm coming to work with the church so that my family and my people know that they mean something to somebody, they mean something to me even though I live in Chicago- "I know one thing I did right/ was the day I started to fight!”
Aunt Curlee Ree looks at the saucer and wax paper and knows most of that sock-it-to-me-cake is gone. She looks at the chicken bones and knows that all the chicken is probably gone to. She heads toward the kitchen and mama fans herself , fans herself cause she doesn’t know how many more days she can stand eating Curlee Ree's food but she got to hold on, hold on