When I awoke the next day, it took me several seconds to remember that it was autumn break in Alabama and that I would not be going to school. I tried to lift my head from the pillow, but I reeled backwards and the spot on my head where my father had struck me the night before throbbed painfully. I also remembered that I had a couple of papers to write for school.
I tried to forget what had happened the night before, but it was difficult. I just couldn’t get the image of my enraged father, the saddened Mrs. Turner and the judging glare of her eldest son out of my head. I’d only wanted to help them. I hadn’t bargained on my father catching me in the act. Now I had no way of being able to contact them or even see them in passing on the street. I was stuck. There was no other way I would be able to help them.
The atmosphere was frosty when I went into the kitchen. Mom was at the counter, preparing that night’s supper – homemade steak and onion pie with seasonal vegetables. She often started early because the puff pastry needed to rise before she could make the pastry shell for the pie. Dad was sat at the table, engrossed in that morning’s newspaper. His glare was icy over the top of the Daily News as I sat down opposite him. I tried to avoid his eye as best I could as I ate toast and a banana. I didn’t have to try very hard – he was doing his best to avoid me too.
Something in the corner of my vision caught my eye. It was the headline of the newspaper Dad was reading intently across the table; KLAN PROSECUTE ANOTHER THIEF – MAYOR CONGRATULATES MEMBERS.
Suddenly, I didn’t have much of an appetite anymore. The idea that any of the Ku Klux Klan had actually done a good deed to the community was almost laughable – not that there was anything to laugh about concerning yet another very public lynching right here in the town centre. And the Mayor was rewarding them for their brutality! He was meant to be the face of order and justice, and what was he doing? Congratulating vicious racists on their violent oppression of colored persons in Greystone!
I pushed my plate away without finishing eating and got up from the table. Mom chose that moment to contribute to the already tense atmosphere.
“Aren’t you hungry, Lydia?” she asked, the carving knife in her hand.
“Not really. I’ve got headache” I replied. It wasn’t exactly a lie – my head was throbbing where my father had driven a blow to my head. The image of his enraged face swam before my eyes, and my own fury at the injustice of it all rose in my throat like bile. “I’m going to my room; I’ve got a paper to write”.
I did have a paper to write, but I didn’t start it when I went to my bedroom. I sat at my desk, looking out at the street through the window. I was restless, annoyed and upset and angry. I tapped my fingers on the desk just for something to do. Dennis Turner, the nameless person that had just been hanged, the families who had no money and the parents who had no jobs. It was so unfair. I was going to do something about it, however I could. I was dead certain of that. I would do something to help. It might take a fair while, not to mention I would be risking so much, but it was worth it for something I believed this strongly about. Wasn’t it?
Of course it was.
How could it not be worth it?
As the week dragged by, there wasn’t a single moment when I wasn’t worrying about the Turner family and if they were being treated badly, whether they had been found out, whether others like them had received the same treatment as Dennis Turner...I was worrier, and when it came to things I felt strongly about, the worry was inevitable.
Mom caught me out a few times, looking intently at the pained expression on my face and asking if something was wrong. I could hardly tell her truth with my father around. The blow to the head was still painful and sore. I didn’t speak to dad at all and he didn’t speak to me. It was just as well – I couldn’t stand to be in the same room as him, knowing what he’d done and what he still out there doing. Mom didn’t neither encourage nor discourage him. She was always in the background, never really helping me or my father. That was what was most unsettling.
With so much free time on my hands, I finished both papers within a few days and, not being allowed out, I spent most of my time listening to the grand old gramophone in the living room. It was quite old – not as high quality as the new ones you saw in music stores. The brass, ear-like tube was dull and the wooden stand was unvarnished and pale. The sound was crackly and the disc kept jumping if too much dust collected. But it was something to do, and it took my mind off my father and what he was doing.
The living room became so familiar to me during that week that I barely concentrated on any other room in the house. After a day or two, my father let me out of my bedroom so that I could spend time in the rest of the house. I suspected that mom had said something to him about it, but again, whether she approves or disapproves of dad’s prejudices and how he’d treated me was unknown to me. When I wasn’t listening to the gramophone, I memorized the patterns in the wallpaper and in the thick carpet, studied the patterns in the grains of the wood of the kitchen table. I was restless. I wanted to be outside, doing something, seeing someone – helping someone.
But not even the gramophone or memorizing the floral pattern of the kitchen window drapes could keep the bad thoughts away for more than a few days at a time. I lay awake at night, thinking and worrying and wondering. I barely slept, and drifted around the house, bored and upset, yawning and stretching. Mom kept acting as if she wanted to say something, but she never did. I suppose she didn’t want to cross my father. I’ve never seen her really support what he does – but I’ve never seen her disagree either. The conflict between my father and I wasn’t just about his prejudices or his aptitude for violence. I’ve never really got on with him anyway. Ever since I was small, he and I never saw eye to eye over pretty much anything. Whenever I did well at school, he always wanted me to do better. Whenever I came bottom in a test or last in a race in gym, he always drilled me over why I didn’t come first. Mom always defended me when this happened.
I remember when it was my first day at middle school, and because of the catchment area of the town I wasn’t with many of my friends. In fact, only one, Bridget, came with me to Upper Greystone Middle School. Everybody else went to the South Side Middle School. But even then, Bridget and I were put in separate classes for almost every subject and in the only subject we had together – English – we were seated across the room from each other. I was virtually alone, and soon Bridget fell in with another group of girls. We didn’t spend much time together. I didn’t have any other friends. Mom was all ready to talk to Bridget’s mom about her ignoring me and not spending time with me, and I was all ready to back up anything she would say, but then dad intervened.
“Don’t be silly, Lydia” he’d said exasperatedly. “It’s not Bridget’s fault that you don’t spend time with her. Why can’t you make more of an effort to get to know some new people?” He’d looked at me long and hard when he’d said this. “You ought to be more sociable, Lydia, then you wouldn’t be drifting around all the time. You’d get out of the house, make new friends. You can’t stay alone all through school”. But that wasn’t the end of it.
The very next day, he handed me a piece of paper with a very long list written on it.
“Here” he’d said. “It’s a list of after-school activities I’ve found for you to look at. Pick something to do with your time instead of sprawling on the couch like a sack of potatoes all evening.”
He was never content with anything I did, or anything I tried to do. When I baked a cake for Mom’s fortieth birthday, he scrutinised it judgingly and then declared that the icing on the top wasn’t even. The year after that, he told me I couldn’t have friends over for my birthday unless I got an A in Trigonometry. It wasn’t like I was flunking the class; I was in the range of a comfortable B.I didn’t mind getting a B. I hated Trigonometry anyway.
When I discovered his prejudices against colored people and the way he treated them, I felt an urge to slap him that was so strong I very nearly came close to doing so. I was twelve when I found out my father was working for the Ku Klux Klan and I almost walked out of the house, right then and there. I’d seen the people in white hoods on the street, marching with their American flag banners, and I’d hated them because of the kind of people they were. I just couldn’t understand how my father could be one of them. There was me, short and dark-haired and a practising Christian. Then there was my father, tall, dark-haired, and a racist. Mom stood between us, neither expressing nor suppressing sympathies with one or the other of us. It was like a game of piggy in the middle; Dad and I the two opposing teams, Mom the ‘piggy’ between us, trying to keep the peace. That was how I saw our relationship.
Not for the first time, I was lying in bed wide awake. I couldn’t sleep. I had been tossing and turning for the best part of an hour, thinking things over. There had been a protest march today because of the Mayor’s decision to knock down a school for colored children in the West side. Hundreds of people turned up to protest – blacks and whites, to my astonishment – but the police were soon called in. The whites that took part in the march were slandered by members of the Ku Klux Klan and many of the blacks were arrested; some got hurt and others had been put in hospital. More than a hundred of them were going to spend the night in a police cell.
Knowing that trying to get some sleep would be fruitless; I got out of bed and turned on the bedside lamp. The clock on the shelf told me it was 3am. A glance through the chink in the curtains showed that it was black as pitch outside. My jacket was lying across my desk chair where I’d left it all those nights ago. I went to pick it up and hang it on the hook on my bedroom door, and a piece of paper fluttered to the floor.
I threw my jacket over my bed and picked the paper up. There was writing on it – writing I didn’t recognise.
I know that it’s difficult to help when there are hardly any people who think the same way as you do. But I know somewhere you can go where there are people who do care and who want things to be different.
The NAACP is holding a Race Rights protest march in Chicago next month. If you really do care about how we are being treated, this could be the first step to making a difference.
My hands shook as I read the note. He must have slipped the note into my jacket pocket when I wasn’t looking. I never even noticed. There was a protest march next month in Chicago. Terry had suggested I go there.
Did I have the courage to disobey my father a second time?
Instinctively, I reached up to touch the tender spot on my head. It throbbed slightly under my fingertips, still sore. The memory of that night still left me reeling, my father’s rage clear in my mind...him standing over me, his face red with fury, hand raised....and then the blow like a cracking whip, and me, falling to the floor....
I hadn’t realised that my breaths had become gasps, or that my hands were clenched into fists at my sides. The piece of paper crumpled in my palm.
I squeezed it tightly in my grip, thinking hard. My father had left me no choice. If he wouldn’t realise that what he was doing was wrong, I was going to show him that what I was doing was right. I was going to go to that protest march in Chicago. I was going to stand up for my beliefs.
And I wasn’t going to let my father or any of his friends stop me.