Read an Excerpt
Some Sing, Some Cry
By Ntozake Shange, Ifa Bayeza
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2010 Ntozake Shange & Ifa Bayeza
All rights reserved.
The first orange light of sunrise left a flush of rose and lavender on Betty's hands as she fingered the likenesses of her children. There were tears she was holding back and cocks crowing, as well as her granddaughter's shouts, "Nana, you ready?" Betty sighed and closed the album reluctantly. Time had come for the last of the Mayfields to leave Sweet Tamarind, the plantation they'd known as home for generations. Talk was some carpetbaggers had bought all the land and paid the white Mayfields a smidgeon of what it was worth and left the poor blacks high and dry. A rough white man, whip and rifle in hand, had passed by a few days before, warning Betty and hers to be off the land by evening of this very day. So off they planned to be, not wanting to know another moment of the whites' wrath. The colored Mayfields were familiar with what that meant, and with no slavery to hold them back they were off to Charleston, where others awaited them.
There was nothing odd about two colored women racing the rhythm of cicadas and the tides at first light, busying themselves with order, a sense of the day to come and dreams of what it might bring, yet this day felt different. This day the cicadas were louder, purposely taunting Betty and her grandchild with their steadiness. Betty set her album down for a second and went to the window to be sure what she was hearing wasn't a band of washboards and gourds being played by some fool-ass folks with tongues in they cheeks. There was no one there. Only the density of Betty's imagination, the palms, some lily o' the valley and nightshade-snugglin' magnolia and giant oaks.
Well, music is not a bad omen, Betty thought to herself. Then she wondered did God mean for her to hear the glory of Gabriel in the morning machinations of insects, the breeze caressing dew on leaves left to themselves all the dark night, waves breaking how the drum popped if African Jeremiah wanted to change the gait of the ring shout, change the dancers' direction with three strong beats and a quick run of his palms on the face of the skin before beginning another rhythm demanding other movements, other oblations, and peace in the energies of the spirits spilling from his fingers to their bodies through the rings of soft clouds round the dawn moon. Sometimes the drums, fiddles, and washboards saluted the giant rose-orange sun, taking up the whole of the horizon like nobody had anywhere to go but to the center of the universe. Yes, the Lord's set the gulls to calling over the ocean's irrepressible going and coming, midst the cicadas' crescendo, to let her know to listen to this blessing, before she and Eudora made this wild — some would say this wild and thoroughly foolhardy — change in their lives. Moving to Charleston.
Why, on Sweet Tamarind everybody understood everybody else. The mélange of Yoruba, Wolof, Portuguese, French, Spanish, and a hint of English left the words of men, free or slave, soothing the air from mouth to mouth, left history in place, content with the comings and goings of her children. Nothing was lost, no one madly pounding gainst a vacuum of silence, nothingness that comes of being of nothing, nothing in particular. When she looked out from her tabby hut, oyster and clam shells cemented with sand thick enough to withstand the might of a cyclone, Betty saw the ruins of the Big House of Sweet Tamarind. She kicked something, not knowing what, thinking to herself, I got no call to leave here. I belong right up there. We all do. Belong right here where I stand.
And what was to become of the graves, the bittersweet memories of her mother, sisters who had been fortunate enough to pass over to the other world before the rigors of this island beat them down, smashed their spirits, left them but ghosts of themselves before it was time. She would have to go to their final resting place before she went anywhere. Sacrilege was not only the province of the white, but could fall upon the unmindful of any of God's children. This Betty believed with her whole body, her body knowing no separation from her soul, ever close to the breath, past and present, of all those whose blood was her own.
But she would have to hurry to pay her respects secretly and gather strength from the loved ones who were no more. Her grandchild Eudora had no sympathy for any who'd come before and had managed to find some joy in the throes of bondage, those who'd thrown away the rigid color codes and property laws to find warmth, love, passions too rich to suppress, so fertile that Eudora owed her own life to them. Perhaps it was this debt of her very being with which she was yet uncomfortable that led Eudora to reject all Betty held so close. Don't for the life of me know why. What for? She 'most white, ain't she? How could all of Africa get so deep in her granddaughter when Mayfield blood flowed just as readily in her veins? How's all this come to be? And if she not all niggah, why not rejoice in that? Eudora's cheeks had known the back of Betty's hand more than once for voicing her defiantly blasphemous thoughts. No matter. Both women were deeply rooted, like Carolinian cypress wondering and massive, to views of themselves that knew no connections other than the words Grandma and chile.
Slipping quietly from the house, Betty hid in her bosom her precious album of daguerreotypes and photographs from wandering carnival sideshow artists. She'd searched futilely for her apron pockets, but she wasn't in an apron. She wasn't going to be cooking in her very deliberate way in her own home anymore. She kept forgetting her future, but refused to forget her ancestors.
Betty swept by purple and white globe amaranth that clung to her skirts like weeping toddlers. She pushed further into the wooded areas she knew to be the resting places of her mother and sisters. Of course she didn't know for sure which of the mounds overgrown with wildflowers and weeds. Were wildflowers weeds? Betty'd asked herself that a thousand times. Was she a wildflower? Was her mother wild? Was she beauteous? Was she full of life like good soil, or empty like dirt? There's a difference tween soil and dirt. There's a difference from coming from nothing and coming from something simply not known. Betty's mother, Monday, was not known to her but she'd clearly come from something. It wasn't true that there was an emptiness. She felt her mother in the fiddle's melody, in the dried gourds ancient women shook until the spirits of somebody from somewhere drove secret sounds from mouths twisted in foreign shapes, squealing and growling a birth of a soul that had no choice but to shout. Then those shouts corralled the bent women and young heifers into a circle that shuffled along, weaving something like Spanish moss around some unseen skeleton the size of God's toe. Or she saw her mother possessed under the arch of God's foot, beating the air with her hips, the soles of her feet afire with the rhythm of the forbidden. Betty knew about the forbidden, therefore she knew her mother. She'd just picked a grave site and called to her. Ma ...
When the azaleas or camellias rose up from the earth for the white folks to pick and pretend love of nature, Betty'd covered her mother's grave with flower petals and danced the dance of longing that became sated only when her body fell, fingers digging for arms to hold her, digging for a womb to bury her tears. But the grasses cut her face, left her limbs grimy with wishing for the impossible. Yet Betty made that real enough to hold sacred, to hold as her beginnings. She sang her mother. Betty let her fine dark hair hang from her head like a mantle of audacity.
She sang her mother when leading other blacker ones through the marshes cross to a safe boat on the way from where she belonged. The darker ones weren't left suspect of their very being. Least that's what Betty imagined. She had to imagine a lot because once she was free and then she was not. Once she wore satin and the finest lace, then she washed someone else's. Betty tried to imagine a reasonable world. She found that harmony by the graves she chose to call her family. She was entitled at least to that. All the others had kin, some that died or were sold away, but they existed somewhere. They knew the smell of magnolias and dogwood blossoms. They knew the songs she sang with them to calm the spirits, to move God's foot in time to the gourds, especially the fancy dangerous ones that woke glory in the tiniest child, the oldest mammy, the fastest picker, chopper, all succumbed to the glory gourds in their gleaming colorful beads, their white feathers and blessed frog's legs. Betty let the music make her belong. She knew her mother. She knew her God danced.
That's what Eudora never found, a place she belonged, and now she was going to force the world to just accept her. Eudora could not bring herself to feel the fiddler's lyric, the gourd's invitations; her own limbs resisted harmony with anything that quelled the dissonance she knew to be herself. Betty jumped once, no twice, round and about the place where she knew her mother's bones waited for her words of love and reverence. She was saying good-bye in silence which broke her heart. Betty became the multitude of sounds and gestures she knew to be safe for those who'd crossed over. The music of a people tumbled from her till only sobs and a writhing body grabbed to hold on to her life. Betty rose weaker than she'd ever been when a child fell from her. Barely breathing she knew the song of her was, indeed, so much a part of her she'd be humming it in her own grave one day. So averse to silence she'd become, the butterflies were clapping bout her head, only no one else could hear them.
Her own daughters' graves were a bit more trouble to identify. Elma, so fair and pampered by the Mayfields she took to despising her mother and her mother's mother, simply disappeared one day. No more than seventeen, she determined that green eyes and silken hair made her ready for whatever the world had to offer. Heavens, no! Not the world of her mother and her mother's mother, but the world of the father, who thought her beauty set her free. Pity. How Betty saw her child's life or death depended on her mood when she looked at the clouds over the horizon. If the clouds were thick, white, billowing, Betty figured the white world was treating her daughter good. It was those thin fast-moving wisps of cloud that troubled Betty. Didn't leave enough for a soul to hold on to. The world was moving too fast and free with Elma, which to Betty signaled a mighty probability of stillness, the silence of the unmourned. And she'd just have to wait to get to Charleston to visit with her dear Blanche. Juliet, her youngest, was lost to her. Juliet, Eudora's mother, who simply had no song. She'd let love fly off with her voice and she had nothing to say to Eudora. Now Eudora was going to Charleston to set something straight that wasn't crooked, going to Charleston to make herself known to the world, when the world was full of young gals like her and dealt them no easy hand, no dance cards or honor.
Shame, Shame. She had to steal away, play half mad to get to the grave of her lover and owner, her master and partner, Julius Mayfield himself. How could he die fighting to keep his own enslaved, children he played with, inspected and vowed never to sell, but own was no contradiction. What kind of man had she shared so much of herself with, did he know she'd done that? Laid open her womanhood and soul as much as any wife anywhere ever had. Over and over she'd gifted him with healthy, never before seen children. Girls whose eyes suggested fog-laden dawns, whose skin was opalescent, whether bronze or ivory. Girls so wantonly free a sane soul couldn't conceive of them as some white's slaves. Yet they were property, like chattel or so much hog entrails, these girls, begat with joy sometimes, from power other times. Either way, how could he at the mere suggestion that she, Betty, the one who laid naked gainst the blond hair silken on his chest, whose legs entangled themselves with his arms and calves, have their mother re-enslaved because he, Mayfield, the planter, heard something about a wench close to him aiding troublemakers to make their way north? He'd heard. He'd heard her screams at childbirth. He knew her sighs of pleasure or terrible release from ecstasy. But what he'd heard from some anonymous white man or maybe a niggah was enough to take those same soft hands of hers that pulled the damp hair on his neck late in the night, holding on for a different kind of glory call, those same hands could now be shackled and set back to boiling lye, washing the undergarments of the white lady who thought she was his wife.
It was not right. It was not wrong. It was. Like stars are. There. Like men and women are. No different from rivers or ravines, caves, hills. Betty didn't care about notions that divided men and women from rocks and fish. It was. She was. Her children were blessings because she had them. She couldn't watch her offspring with disdain the way she'd seen other women look at their master's broods. The pain of carrying hatred round in her body, in the hair that flowed down her back, was too ugly to leave any room for her. She had to be because her girls were, because the wind blows and stars decorate the night, sometimes falling into the laps of lovers, the currents of twisting creeks, the moist black of dream, and the song of her mother. Crepe myrtle spread over the grave of the father of her children like her arms and hair use'ta cover them after the act. He never touched her mean then, with the stinginess folks assumed. There was no hate between them. There was a chasm of fate, cowardice, and the inevitability of men and women seeing nothing but one another, smelling nothing but the scent of the other. That's all Betty understood. It was enough for her to curl neath the flowing crepe myrtle and let the pulse of his breath calm her. He was good for that.
She carefully laid the pictures of their children over the granite carved with the letters of his name, Julius Mayfield, and told him all she could about each child because he would hear from her no more.
I'm still amazed how somebody standing way from me that I never seen before, with his head under some black cloth, bad luck there for sure, makin' poofs, puffs, whatever, some dusting of the sky with soot, with smoke, with my soul maybe, hope not. Stranger come and we give up hard-earned money to look at pictures of ourselfs. Like mirrors wasn't enough. Like the reflection of you in my eyes to your eyes wasn't the Lord letting our insides out into the other. There are ways to remember and put back together whatever it was you want to recollect. Seems to me a laziness come over folks preventin' them from going deep down to the gut of all they ever been and tellin' somebody, if somebody want to know.
Don't know why Julius was so taken with these here whatchu call em, oh, photongraphs, no daguerrographs. Oh, who in the Lord's world want to know what they callt? All I know is Julius went to Paris, France, as a young man and came back besotted with this newfangled invention. Done built hisself a black room to fiddle around makin' em, an invited every wandering 'tographer on the road to the house to make more, talkin' bout they "art" all night long. But I found a path through them black-and-whites thinner than pastry dough, less supple than bark, more costly than lace, I say I found me a way to put some blood life back in the still of my children's eyes, they limbs caught in the air like dead folks shaped the way a fool wan to remember, with they smiles pained or pushed way past a lie. Oh, yes, Saints be praised, I can read some life into these pictures, make my family come back to life. Only funny thing bout it, they still coming back in black and white, that the only true thing bout em. Black n white. Niggahs n peckawoods. Enough to make me find some dark funny in all this. Can't get through my children's eyes. If you can't make your way through black and white in a heap of entanglement and haints, good and evil, always nearby to help us, or at least me, find my way through what all I done or what done come up with me. No matter. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Some Sing, Some Cry by Ntozake Shange, Ifa Bayeza. Copyright © 2010 Ntozake Shange & Ifa Bayeza. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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