A long gravel driveway led up to our Alex Haley’s Roots house perched on top of a diminutive hill, overlooking highway 49, and a little more than 40 acres of farmland my Uncle Levy had once owned. A sprawl of acreage harvested for cotton, corn, potatoes, cucumbers, watermelons and peas. Chickens, hogs, mules, dogs, cats and various wild animals roamed the country farm as well.
The dilapidated house stood on concrete blocks. The rooftop was layered with rusty metal. The sunken porch barely held up to the weight of the 10 family members who trampled in and out of the house headed to church, to plow and harvest the fields, to school and trips to the country store. Each morning, my cousins and I would trek down the long rocky driveway to catch the morning school bus; the driveway dead-ends at the highway.
In the backwoods of segregated Mississippi, right on schedule at 7:15 a.m., two yellow buses zoomed past one another, one loaded with white children headed in one direction, the other packed with us colored children going in the opposite direction to their assigned schools. As the big yellow buses trundled past one another, the colored and white children stared out of their windows at each other, as if they were from different worlds — and they were.
In retrospect, I was one of those colored children who was bused to an impoverished and dreadful school that stunted growth and learning. Daily, I found myself fighting to get into the school, and I found myself fighting to get out of the school. I attended a school cluttered with countrified, unruly, dumb, undisciplined colored children. I dreaded every day that I had to attend that dilapidated school. Even the teachers were harsh, rigid and impudent. I was a city boy. I had been shipped off from Gulfport, Mississippi, to live with my grandmother’s brother on a farm. I had nothing in common with those countrified people.
Like most colored children when I was growing up, we attended impoverished schools where learning was difficult to achieve. I was subjected to a poor education from childhood through high school. I can tell you that I had never read a book until I was the age of 31. Looking back, I do not remember ever seeing a report card during my early school years. I never knew if I had flunked a class or passed.
Some of us colored children were just passed on to the next grade — unquestioned. I believe most colored children were not placed in schools with the belief that someday they would succeed; we were placed in schools to be out of the way because there was no other place for us. Most colored children went unlearned and ignorant much of their early grade-school years. Frankly speaking, school was not a priority for colored children in the hostile South.
Looking back, the fail years of grade school through high school cast a cloud of doubt in my head for many years. I had come to believe that I would never achieve anything above the lot I lived.
Granted, I came from a decent family, although I had no role models to tell me what school meant. What will it do for me in the long run for my future? Looking back, I understand that life was difficult for us colored folks in the Deep South. Segregation prevented freedom of movement, thoughts and imagination. Colored folks worked, attended schools and churches to the drumbeat of segregated codes.
Without that early guidance, for years I drifted from one city to the other, from one state to the other, from one job to the other and from one intimate relationship to the other. I came from nothing. I had never accomplished or achieved anything in life. I never had anything to call my own. I was just another young black man with an unlettered and untutored mind, roaming the earth without a path. I led a stale life, a life foredoomed for mediocrity and disappointment.
Fortunately, in the scorching summer of 1967, my uncle and aunt had rescued me from the clutches of segregation and the farm, and lugged me off to another foreign place I had never heard of called California. Before this dramatic change, I had been shipped from one state to another: from Mississippi to Alabama to New Orleans back to Mississippi, and onward to California. I had no idea or knowledge of which direction California lay in, but I was more than ready to leave the farm.
California gave me a new start, but I still had no success in school. I repeated some of the same life I had lived in Mississippi. I moved from one city to the other; I went from one job to the other; and through all that movement, I had never found a place to belong. You ask, where are you now? The great writer Margaret Walker said, “Anybody in his right mind ought to be able to realize an unpleasant truth especially when he was looking at the evidence with his naked eye.”
It was in the crisp winter of 1981, with a stroke of luck, that I met the woman who would change the course of my life. The luminous and astonishing full moon sat high in the starry sky, casting its wide glow over the city of Santa Barbara. I met Jacqueline, a cotton-colored petite Englishwoman in a dance club. I had been introduced to her by a friend. The sagacious-looking woman sat snuggled between two other women.
Since meeting by chance that night, we have been conjoined at the hip for the past 35 years. She introduced me to books because she thought I needed to educate myself. Actually, through all of my early school years, I can’t ever remember reading a 10-line paragraph. As we turtle-paced into our newfound relationship, I noticed there was a stretch of distance in knowledge between us. I saw her as a literate woman in the arts, academics, and as a world traveler.
I, on the other hand, had acquired a Ph.D. in street knowledge on how to make ends meet — which added up to an encyclopedia of useless knowledge and shenanigans. There was no way I was going to remain on the ignorant side of life. She insisted that I should go to college and get an education.
“How will I pay for college?” I frowned. “I don’t have the money or anyone to help me.”
“Don’t worry, Charles, I will help you,” she said.
“OK, if you say so.”
In time, with her guidance, I made it through college, and along the way I became a voracious reader of many authors such as: Hermann Hesse, Anton Chekhov, John Updike, Leo Tolstoy, Thomas Wolfe, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, James Lee Burke, Walter Mosley, Ernest Hemingway, Toni Morrison, Chester Himes, Joyce Carol Oates and Ayn Rand and more.
In time, I emerged from the disposition of a street prowler to a reader of literature, academics, arts — and in time a writer. It took some time and discipline to evolve, to learn how to read a book or write. I had never opened a book to read for pleasure; as a matter of fact, I never knew anyone who read a book for pleasure — except Jacqueline.
Books gave me articulation, confidence; whereas, before my speech and thoughts have been in this life — a writer! Books gave wings to my imagination. “Words are the daughters of earth,” said Samuel Johnson. I began to write essays and short stories for newspapers and magazines. Now I carry a freightage of books everywhere I go; one is never alone if one has a good book. These words by Andrew Lang in the 1800s encapsulate the essence of what books mean to me.
“Here stand my books, line upon line
They reach the roof, and row by row,
They speak of faded tastes of mine,
And things I did, but I do not, know.”
Looking back on that starry night when I first met her, the music stopped and the evening came to an abrupt end. We released the gentle embrace we held around each other while dancing to the song, “Endless Love” by Diana Ross and Lionel Richie. I trailed her and her entourage out of the dance club, although I lagged a few steps behind to view her small frame in her Liz Claiborne tight jeans that hugged her body like a straitjacket.
As we started to part ways, I noticed that the majestic and teal sky was still clear and undisturbed. The broad face of the moon still blared brightly over the city, like a giant General Electric bulb. Mysteriously, Mother Nature had placed a coterie of stars around the moon in their fortified, assigned places, giving the moon a dominant look. The evening still held a touch of chill, but not bothersome.
I had a long grin on my face that stretched from ear to ear. I felt there was something magical in the air, but I did not know what.
“Goodnight … Jacqueline … I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“I’m looking forward to it, Charles,” she said, as the diminutive-framed woman disappeared into the night.
I headed to my beat-up Jolly Green Giant van. I had roamed the city of Santa Barbara for years looking for that one special person — and I had found her. Looking back, I did not know it then, but I know it now. I had driven out of that pitch-dark parking lot, knowing I had traveled paths similar to Jack London’s Martin Eden and she became my Ruth Morse.