ISSN 2327-3666

February 21, 2012

What It Means to Be A Negro, How My Mother Died

International Journal of Radical Critique via WHAT IT MEANS TO BE YOUNG AND BLACK IN AMERICA (1970), February 21, 2012 | by DAISY BATES

I was born Daisy Lee Gatson in the little sawmill town of Huttig, in southern Arkansas. The owner of the mill ruled the town. Huttig might have been called a sawmill plantation, for everyone worked for the mill, lived in houses owned by the mill, and traded at the general store run by the mill.
Daisy Bates (center) with L.C. Bates (Right)
from Wisconsin Historical Images


The hard red clay streets of the town were mostly unnamed. Main Street, the widest and longest street in town, and the muddiest after a rain, was the site of our business square. It consisted of four one-story buildings which housed a commissary and a meat market, a post office, an ice cream parlor, and a movie house. Main Street also divided “White Town” from “Negra Town.” However, the physical appearance of the two areas provided a more definite means of distinction.

The Negro citizens of Huttig were housed in rarely painted, drab red “shotgun” houses, so named because one could stand in the front yard and look straight through the front and back doors into the back yard. The Negro community was also provided with two church buildings of the same drab red exterior, although kept spotless inside by the Sisters of the church, and a two-room schoolhouse equipped with a potbellied stove that never quite succeeded in keeping it warm.

On the other side of Main Street were white bungalows, white steepled churches and a spacious white school with a big lawn. Although the relations between the Negro and white were cordial, the tone of the community, as indicated by outward appearances, was of the “Old South” tradition.

As I grew up in this town, I knew I was a Negro, but I did not really understand what that meant until I was seven years old. My parents, as do most Negro parents, protected me as long as possible from the inevitable insult and humiliation that is, in the South, a part of being “colored.”

I was a proud and happy child--all hair and legs, my cousin Easy B. used to say--and only child although not blessed with the privileges of having my own way. One afternoon, shortly after my seventh birthday, my mother called me in from play.

“I’m not feeling well,” she said. “You’ll have to go to the market to get meat for dinner.”

I was thrilled with such an important errand. I put on one of my prettiest dresses and my mother brushed my hair. She gave me instructions to get a pound of center-cut pork chops. I skipped happily all the way to the market.

When I entered the market, there where several white adults waiting to be served. When the butcher had finished with them, I gave him my order. More white adults entered. The butcher turned from me and took their orders. I was a little annoyed but felt since they were grownups it was all right. While he was waiting on the adults, a little white girl came in and we talked while we waited.

The butcher finished with the adults, looked down at us and asked, “What do you want, little girl?” I smiled and said, “I told you before, a pound of center-cut pork chops.” He snarled, “I’m not talking to you,” and again asked the white girl what she wanted. She also wanted a pound of center-cut pork chops.

“Please may I have my meat?” I said, as the little girl left. The butcher took my dollar from the counter reached into the showcase, got a handful of fat chops and wrapped them up. Thrusting the package at me, he said, “Niggers have to wait ‘til I wait on the white people. Now take your meat and get out of here!” I ran all the way home crying.

When I reached the house, my mother asked what had happened. I started pulling her toward the door, telling her what the butcher had said. I opened the meat and showed it to her. “It’s fat, Mother. Let’s take it back.”

“Oh, Lord, I knew I shouldn’t have sent her. Stop crying, now, the meat isn’t so bad.”

“But it is, Why can’t we take it back?”

“Go on out on the porch and wait for Daddy.” As she turned from me, her eyes were filling with tears.

When I saw Daddy approaching, I ran to him, crying. He lifted me in his arms and smiled. “Now, what’s wrong?’ When I told him, his smile faded.

“And if we don’t hurry, the market will be closed,” I finished.

“We’ll talk about it after dinner, sweetheart.” I could feel the muscles tighten as he carried me into the house.

Dinner was distressingly silent. Afterward my parents went into the bedroom and talked. My mother came out and told me my father wanted to see me. Daddy sat there looking at me for a long time. Several times, he tried to speak, but the words just wouldn’t come. I stood there, looking at him and wondering why he was acting so strangely. Finally he stood up and the words began tumbling from him. Much of what he said I did not understand. To my seven-year-old mind he explained as best he could that a Negro had no rights that a white man respected.

He dropped to his knees, in front of me, placed his hands on my shoulders, and began shaking me and shouting.

“Can’t you understand what I’ve been saying?” He demanded. “There is nothing I can do! If I went down to the market I would only cause trouble for my family.”

As I looked ay my daddy sitting by me and with tears in his eyes, I blurted out innocently, “Daddy, are you afraid?”

He sprang to his feet in an anger I has never seen before. “Hell, no! I’m not afraid for myself, I’m not afraid to die. I could go down to that market and tear him limb from limb with my bare hands, but I am afraid for you and your mother.”

That night when I knelt to pray, instead of my usual prayers, I found myself praying that the butcher would die. After that night we never mentioned him again.

Excerpted from Alexander; Lester (Ed), What it means to be Young & Black in America, 1970,  Random House, New York; NY,  p. 37-56.