Many of us, especially in the African American community have family members, usually elders who have taken secrets with them to the grave. I personally never understood why. Did they believe they were protecting us or was it due to shame and stigma? In my day, as children we were told to stay in a child’s place and mind our business. That meant to not ask questions concerning grown folks or there was a good chance of getting a back hand across the mouth. Listening and catching pieces of conversations among relatives peaked my curiosity to the point of as I grew older, it became my mission to put the pieces of the puzzle together.
One of those secrets included stillborn deaths of baby girls carried during first preagnancies of women in my family dating back four generations. Our photo album holds photos of those baby girls in their tiny little coffins. One belonging to my mothers oldest sister who desperately always wanted a girl but eventually had two boys and all grandsons. When I finally learned the truth as an adult, my mom was fortunate that I’m here eventhough other evidence has left me to question if she is in fact the one who gave birth to me. While growing up before learning the details, I always felt God was puninishing me; asking why did I survive, only to be abused when the other babies didn’t. I also learned why my mom and aunt argued constantly since I was little , as they still do today at ages 68 and 73. My mother had always used the term “kidnapped” as did I before gaining the courage to finally confront my aunt when she admitted she did “steal” me from my mother when I was 3. I’d always known deep down that something transpired because I remember a length of time when I was always with my aunt and never saw my mother. That along with the constant arguments over the phone where I clearly recal my mother accusing someone on the other end of the line of “kidnapping her baby”. Later I found out my aunt disappeared with me for close to three years, spoiling me rotten.
Of all the secrets I’ve discovered amongst my family, the one I wanted answers to the most, was how my grandfather got his nickname “Eighty-six”. We spent plenty of time together over the years until he succumbed to lung cancer in 2004 from constant exposure to asbestos. He and my mother were very close and even she had no clue as to why certain folks (mainly back in Arkansas) called him Eighty-six. Over time I asked several family members and assumed they were lying when they said they didn’t know. Whenever I’d ask my grandfather, (usually during our fishing trips or him teaching me how to make his tea cakes) he’d quickly change the conversation to a lesson. “Stay in school and learn ya self sumthin'”, “save ya money and don’t trus no bank”. He was always firm and more serious when he’d tell me to stand up for myself and not let people treat me any ol way, but try to avoid violence if I could. He was a good honest man, but cheap. After returning from the Navy all he did was work in the steel mill and attend church. The remainder of his time was mostly spent in isolation.
I always wondered how/why he ended up settling in Richmond, Ca. when the majority of our family was spread throughout Arkansas. Momma would tell me stories from her memories with him about the two of them hopping freight trains across the country. His mother; Effie who my mom was named after lived to be 100 and I was curious why my grandfather wouldn’t take the trip back down south to visit her. I know he loved his mother, everyone did. Growing up we’d visit every year for the family reunion. Eventually the town began hosting a parade in her honor during Juneteenth for being the longest living resident of Wilmar, even naming a street after her. My children rode horseback in those parades. He did finally make the trip back just before she passed. My brother and I made the drive with him that year, but we were in and out of town before anyone even knew we were there.
One year after my grandfather had passed, I went back to Wilmar to visit my mother. During my stay I was curious about the juke joint I heard about deep in the woods or as town folk’s called it “the hole in da wall”, like in the movie “The Color Purple”. It was a small double-wide trailer with a few tables full of older folks playing cards. The kitchen area was turned into a bar and there was down home blues blarring throughout the woods. While standing there observing country life, I noticed three older gentleman motioning for me to come over to their table. My first thought was they were some old perverts, until they asked, “hey, you Eighty-six’s granddaughter huh?” Confused yet intrigued by the look in their eyes, I smiled and asked how they knew my grandfather. The town was so small that I wasn’t surprised they knew who I was because everyone gossips when someone new comes to town. Besides there’s also a very strong resemblance between my grandfather and I. The men asked me to have a seat and proceeded with telling me the story about the day my grandfather killed a white man. They began with “whew, it was a cold day in Wilmar”. Each man, who were actually good friends of my grandfather, took turns sharing specific details of what they witnessed. In a nutshell, after the white man spit on my grandfather while spewing racist slurs attempting to cut him with a switch blade, but was not successful due the the struggle between the two, ultimately resulted in my grandfather wrestling the knife away then using it to slit the mans throat (hence the line from my poem 5thGeneration Girl ). I was in awe and anxious to get back for confirmation from my grandfather’s siblings. While none of them offered any details, they also didn’t deny it. All I was told is that our family has never spoke of that day. The three men from the juke joint had already painted a vivd image of what took place. They’d gone on to explain how when the few town white folks that there were, charged up the gravel road to our land, there was a bridge where my Big Momma, great aunts and uncles all lined up across it with their shot guns ready to shoot anyone who wasn’t colored. That land was left to my ancestors generations ago by their slave owners. No whites were allowed. I learned that decades later, the only time white’s were permitted on the land was for hunting and/or purchasing our trees for lumber mills.
To “eighty-six” someone was a phraise I’d heard in an old movie. I knew it meant to to get rid of or do away with someone or something which had in part been the motivation for my curiosity regarding my grandfather. Suddenly, everything began to make sense. Him being so quiet and secluded. Hopping freight trains with my mom ending up in California, but mostly why he didn’t visit Big momma and his siblings who all lived very long lives. The lessons he tried to teach me which the lightbulb did eventually click. Most of all though, I realized that history really does repeat it’s self. My grandfather and I were more alike than I ever could’ve imagined. I know first hand what he must’ve experienced being on the run, watching over his back constantly and not knowing who he could trust. Basically being the “black sheep of the family and having to live with such tragic memories that seemingly haunted him throughout his life. I am thankful for the ability to pass on these revelations of truth regarding my ancestors in hopes of them being lessons for future generations.