Excerpt
The first decade of the twentieth century was not a great time to be
born black and poor and female in St. Louis, Missouri, but Vivian Baxter
was born black and poor, to black and poor parents. Later she would grow
up and be called beautiful. As a grown woman she would be known as the
butter-colored lady with the blowback hair.Her father, a Trinidadian
with a heavy Caribbean accent, had jumped from a banana boat in Tampa,
Florida, and evaded immigration agents successfully all his life. He
spoke often and loudly with pride at being an American citizen. No one
explained to him that simply wanting to be a citizen was not enough to
make him one.Contrasting with her father's dark chocolate complexion,
her mother was light-colored enough to pass for white. She was called
an octoroon, meaning that she had one-eighth Negro blood. Her hair was
long and straight. At the kitchen table, she amused her children by
whirling her braids like ropes and then later sitting on them.Although
Vivian's mother's people were Irish, she had been raised by
German adoptive parents, and she spoke with a decided German accent.Vivian
was the firstborn of the Baxter children. Her sister Leah was next,
followed by brothers Tootie, Cladwell, Tommy, and Billy.As they grew,
their father made violence a part of their inheritance. He said often,
"If you get in jail for theft or burglary, I will let you rot. But
if you are charged with fighting, I will sell your mother to get your
bail."The family became known as the "Bad Baxters."
If someone angered any of them, they would track the offender to his
street or to his saloon. The brothers (armed) would enter the bar. They
would station themselves at the door, at the ends of the bar, and at the
toilets. Uncle Cladwell would grab a wooden chair and break it, handing
Vivian a piece of the chair.He would say, "Vivian, go kick that
bastard's ass."Vivian would ask, "Which one?"Then
she would take the wooden weapon and use it to beat the offender.When
her brothers said, "That's enough," the Baxter gang would
gather their violence and quit the scene, leaving their mean reputation
in the air. At home they told their fighting stories often and with great
relish.Grandmother Baxter played piano in the Baptist church and she liked
to hear her children sing spiritual gospel songs. She would fill a cooler
with Budweiser and stack bricks of ice cream in the refrigerator.The
same rough Baxter men led by their fierce older sister would harmonize
in the kitchen on "Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross":There a
precious fountainFree to all, a healing stream,Flows from Calvary's
mountain.The Baxters were proud of their ability to sing. Uncle Tommy
and Uncle Tootie had bass voices; Uncle Cladwell, Uncle Ira, and Uncle
Billy were tenors; Vivian sang alto; and Aunt Leah sang a high soprano
(the family said she also had a sweet tremolo). Many years later, I heard
them often, when my father, Bailey Johnson Sr., took me and my brother,
called Junior, to stay with the Baxters in St. Louis. They were proud to
be loud and on key. Neighbors often dropped in and joined the songfest,
each trying to sing loudest.Vivian's father always wanted to hear
about the rough games his sons played. He would listen eagerly, but
if their games ended without a fight or at least a scuffle, he would
blow air through his teeth and say, "That's little boys'
play. Don't waste my time with silly tales."Then he would tell
Vivian, "Bibbi, these boys are too big to play little girls'
games. Don't let them grow up to be women."Vivian took his
instruction seriously. She promised her father she would make sure they
were tough. She led her brothers to the local park and made them watch
as she climbed the highest tree. She picked fights with the toughest boys
in her neighborhood, never asking her brothers to help, counting on them
to wade into the fight without being asked.Her father chastised her when
she called her sister a sissy.He said, "She's just a girl, but
you are more than that. Bibbi, you are Papa's little girl-boy. You
won't have to be so tough forever. When Cladwell gets up some size,
he will take over."Vivian said, "If I let him."Everyone
laughed, and recounted the escapades about when Vivian taught them how to
be tough.2My mother, who was to remain a startling beauty, met my father,
a handsome soldier, in 1924. Bailey Johnson had returned from World War
I with officer's honors and a fake French accent. They were unable
to restrain themselves. They fell in love while Vivian's brothers
walked around him threateningly. He had been to war, and he was from the
South, where a black man learned early that he had to stand up to threats,
or else he wasn't a man.The Baxter boys could not intimidate Bailey
Johnson, especially after Vivian told them to lay off, to straighten up,
and fly right. Vivian's parents were not happy that she was marrying
a man from the South who was neither a doctor nor lawyer. He said he was
a dietitian. The Baxters said that meant he was just a Negro cook.Vivian
and Bailey left the contentious Baxter atmosphere and moved to California,
where little Bailey was born. I came along two years later. My parents
soon proved to each other that they couldn't stay together. They
were matches and gasoline. They even argued about how they were to
break up. Neither wanted the responsibility of taking care of two
toddlers. They separated and sent me and Bailey to my father's
mother in Arkansas.I was three and Bailey was five when we arrived in
Stamps, Arkansas. We had identification tags on our arms and no adult
supervision. I learned later that Pullman car porters and dining car
waiters were known to take children off trains in the North and put them
on other trains heading south.Save for one horrific visit to St. Louis,
we lived with my father's mother, Grandmother Annie Henderson,
and her other son, Uncle Willie, in Stamps until I was thirteen. The
visit to St. Louis lasted only a short time but I was raped there and
the rapist had been killed. I thought I had caused his death because I
told his name to the family. Out of guilt, I stopped talking to everyone
except Bailey. I decided that my voice was so powerful that it could kill
people, but it could not harm my brother because we loved each other so
much.My mother and her family tried to woo me away from mutism but they
didn't know what I knew: that my voice was a killing machine. They
soon wearied of the sullen, silent child and sent us back to Grandmother
Henderson in Arkansas, where we lived quietly and smoothly within my
grandmother's care and under my uncle's watchful eye.When my
brilliant brother Bailey was fourteen he had reached a dangerous age for
a black boy in the segregated South. It was a time when if a white person
walked down the one paved block in town, any Negro on the street had to
step aside and walk in the gutter.Bailey would obey the unspoken order but
sometimes he would sweep his arm theatrically and loudly say, "Yes,
sir, you are the boss, boss."Some neighbors saw how Bailey acted
in front of white folks downtown and reported to Grandmother.She called
us both over and said to Bailey, "Junior"--her nickname for
him--"you been downtown showing out? Don't you know these white
folks will kill you for poking fun of them?""Momma"--my
brother and I often called her that--"all I do is
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