9780312380700

The Sacred Place A novel

by
  • ISBN13:

    9780312380700

  • ISBN10:

    0312380704

  • Edition: Reprint
  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 2008-07-22
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin
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Summary

In the summer of 1955, fourteen-year-old Clement enters a general store in Money, Mississippi to purchase a soda. Unaware of the consequences of flouting the rules governing black-white relations in the South, this Chicago native defies tradition, by laying a dime on the counter and turns to depart. Miss Cuthbert, the store attendant, demands that he place the money in her hand, but he refuses, declaring, "I ain't no slave!" and exits with a sense of entitlement unknown to black people at the time. His behavior results in his brutal murder. This event sparks a war in Money, forcing the black community to galvanize its strength in pursuit of equality.

Author Biography

DANIEL OMOTOSHO BLACK is a native of Kansas City, Kansas yet spent the majority of his childhood years in Blackwell, Arkansas. He is an associate professor at his alma mater Clark Atlanta University where he now aims to provide an example to young African Americans of the importance of self-knowledge and communal commitment. He is also the author of THEY TELL ME OF A HOME.

Table of Contents

Chapter One
 
Come on, clement!” his cousins demanded. “you ain't got no business in dat store! Granddaddy kill you if he find out you went in there all by yo'self!”
 
Clement smiled at the thought of his own defiance, trying to imagine what eighty-year-old Jeremiah Johnson could possibly do to him, with one bad leg and two failing eyes. Of course a whoopin' would hurt, he considered, but the pain was always temporal. All he wanted was a soda pop, and he didn't understand why he couldn't simply waltz into the General Store and get one. That's what white folks did when they wanted something; why should he be afraid to do the same?
 
“Clement!” the others screamed more vehemently as he approached the old wooden screen door. Sarah Jane's tears were more than her mouth could speak. At twelve, she knew never to be found alone with white folk because her grandmother's threat to whip her good was not to be taken lightly. Stories of Black kids who disappeared after being last seen with whites was enough to keep her at least fifty feet from any of them, so Clement's audacity frightened her and rendered her mute. Only her tears expressed her fear that he was making a fatal mistake. The boys, Ray Ray and Chop, simply shook their heads, and murmured, “City boys. They think they know everything.”
 
Hoping not to witness a tragedy, the three walked home in the ninety-degree heat and mumbled silent prayers that Granddaddy wouldn't beat Clement too badly. After all, he was new to the place and didn't understand the rules of Black Southern life. Chicago had groomed him for fourteen years prior to his arrival in Money, Mississippi, and left him believing that a resident of the Windy City could survive anywhere. Indeed, the day Jeremiah Johnson retrieved him from the Greenwood train station, Clement boasted of insight beyond anything his cousins could imagine. He spoke of prostitutes, pimps, and kids who roamed the streets long after the night-light appeared. The brand-new twenty-dollar bill he excavated from his front pocket elicited praise and envy from sharecropping children who had never seen anything beyond a five. Clement was the teacher who, with feigned exasperation, shared stories about Chicago Negroes who owned houses and never worked for white folks.
 
“Whwhwhwhat d-d-d-dey d-do thththen?” Chop stammered incredulously. Silence was his usual mode, but the notion that Negroes somewhere didn't submit their labor to whites unleashed an otherwise restrained tongue. At eight, his self-esteem, like rain on a rooftop, was falling in more directions than he could catch. His stuttering kept folks—both his own and others—from planting seeds of intelligence in him, having concluded already that he would make a marvelous field hand one day. His mother had allowed him to wear his one good pair of overalls to meet his citified cousin, who laughed at the only hole she had failed to patch.
 
“They work for theyselves, fool!” Clement proclaimed, although everyone knew these weren't his folks. “They own they own businesses, and they hire Black folks just like they white.”
 
“Wow,” Chop mumbled. Everybody he knew picked cotton, washed white folks' clothes, or worked on the railroad in Greenwood.
 
“That ain't all. Some of 'em even marries white, too. And they live together like it ain't nothin'!” Clement continued.
 
“You hush up dat kinda talk 'round here boy,” Jeremiah Johnson interrupted. “You ain't in Chicago no mo. Yous in Mississippi. And round here, coloreds stay wit coloreds and whites stay wit whites. And dat's de way it is.”
 
Chop lamented Granddaddy's imposition and planned mentally what he would ask Clement later. He wanted to know more about city life and how he could, one day, live in a house he owned all by himself. Chop refused to stop hoping for the day when Granddaddy—or any Black daddy—could work without giving all his money away.
 
 
 
 
 
Clement entered the General Store with an entitlement unknown to Mississippi Negroes in 1955. He didn't even knock. He just opened the door, walked in, and started looking around for the soda pop machine.
 
“Help ya?” Catherine Cuthbert's soft soprano voice asked reluctantly.
 
Staring her in the eye, Clement returned, “Sure. Where you keep your soda pops?”
 
“In the big barrel over there,” she drawled, and nodded. Never had a Negro boy looked directly at her without flinching. She knew he couldn't be from Money or anywhere in Mississippi for that matter.
 
Clement proceeded, humming snippets of Fats Domino's “Ain't That a Shame,” and retrieved a root beer. Setting it on the countertop, he reached into his right trouser pocket and placed a nickel next to the soda bottle.
 
“You put that nickel in my hand!” she demanded.
 
Clement frowned, surprised. “Excuse me?”
 
Catherine Cuthbert's hazel eyes narrowed. “I said, put that nickel in my hand—boy!”
 
Clement's brow puckered at the insult. “There it is! You pick it up!” he sneered, opening the soda and beginning to drink.
 
“I said hand me that nickel, nigger boy!” Her outstretched hand trembled with expectation as her face transformed from cotton to crimson.
 
“I already paid you, lady! If you too lazy to pick up the nickel, that's your problem, not mine,” Clement belted, and turned to exit.
 
“You'll never get away with disrespecting me like that!” she screamed.
 
“I already did!” Clement chuckled and skipped away. Who did she think she was anyway, he wondered. “Slavery been over,” he shouted over his shoulder, sipping the root beer like it was a spoil of war.
 
Catherine Cuthbert watched him with a vengeance she could not articulate. Never had a colored boy disobeyed her command, and absolutely never had one attempted to speak to her as an equal. “He just laid that nickel down and expected me to pick it up,” she whispered repeatedly to herself, inciting an internal rage that produced rivers of sweat beads meandering down her rose red forehead. Pacing in fury, she vowed to reclaim her purity from a nigger boy who dared think he could speak to her any kind of way.
 
Catching up with the others, Clement told them what had happened.
 
“Is you crazy?” Sarah Jane yelled. “Don't you know dat white folks kill colored boys over dat kinda stuff?” Her father had rendered his life one windy, October evening a few years prior after some whites had raped and mutilated his wife. Knowing no other recourse, he killed them. By nightfall, his long legs added to the extensions hanging from the big oak tree on Chapman's place. Sarah Jane couldn't explain all the details without wailing uncontrollably, but she tried. “You cain't come down to Mississippi, Clement, and ack like you still up Norf!” She swung mightily and hit him in the shoulder.
 
“What's wrong with you, girl?” Clement's bulging eyes showed that he didn't comprehend the depth of Sarah Jane's objection.
 
“No, what's wrong wit you!” she bellowed in his face. “You think you ain't colored like de rest o' us? You think dat jes 'cause you from Chicago, you ain't got to bow to white folks?”
 
“I ain't got to bow to nobody,” Clement said proudly. “My momma told me dat I was jes as good as anybody else, and dat she would whip me if she ever caught me bowing my head to white folks.”
 
Sarah Jane swung her arms as though a spirit possessed and said, “Aunt Possum didn't mean fo you to come down here and sass white folks 'til you git yoself kilt!” She fell to the ground helplessly and released the heavy sobs she had been trying to confine.
 
“Don't cry, Sarah Jane,” Ray Ray begged, embarrassed. “Everythang gon be all right.”
 
“No, it ain't!” she screamed. “You know white folks don't 'low no colored peoples to talk to dem like dat!”
 
“Well, they don't know me,” Clement boasted. “Anyway, I didn't do nothin' wrong. I just went in the store, bought me a soda pop, and paid for it.”
 
Sarah Jane tried not to imagine Clement pleading for his life before a merciless white mob, but each time he spoke, the image became clearer. “Why didn't you hand the woman the nickel, Clement?” she huffed.
 
“ 'Cause I didn't have to! All I had to do was pay her, and that's what I did. I ain't no slave! She cain't talk to me like I ain't nothin'!” Clement had hoped his cousins would celebrate his boldness; instead their reprimand infuriated him. “I ain't scared o' white folks! Y'all might be, but I ain't!”
 
As though she hadn't heard him, Sarah Jane said, “I hope to God this don't come to nothin'.” She stood and brushed off her cotton sack dress. “You didn't have no business bein' rude to Miss Cuthbert like dat, Clement. You coulda jes put de money in her hand”—she acted out the motion slowly—“and left.”
 
“Okay, okay. Let's jes fugit about it,” Ray Ray intervened before allowing himself to envision a wounded Clement. Ray Ray was fourteen, too, only a month older than Clement, but at least five inches taller. His overalls, which were always too short and too tight, made him look bound and constrained. Most girls considered him the cutest boy in Money though, with his enviable, flawless, caramel brown complexion and hair that curled at the sight of water. He never said much, afraid of saying the wrong thing, and he hated nothing more than tension. Or maybe looking after his younger brother Chop. Ray Ray named him that after watching him devour a pork chop—bone and all—at six months. Their parents had named him Hope, but once Ray Ray started calling him Chop, his birth name faded into myth. At the moment, Ray Ray simply wanted everybody to stop talking so his nerves could settle.
 
They walked home in silence. Occasionally, Sarah Jane shook her head sadly as she remembered, but she decided to pray now instead of argue. Chop wanted to hear more of Clement's Chicago stories, but as the youngest of the bunch he had learned early when simply to shut up and follow. He watched Ray Ray kick the same stone for almost a mile, amazed at his brother's concentration and precision. Some days, he wanted to hug him and tell him he was the greatest big brother in the whole wide world, but fear of rejection kept him from ever doing it. Plus, his stuttering probably wouldn't have let him get the words out right.
 
Clement wondered what the summer would bring. He had visited before, but now he wouldn't go home until the end of August. What do colored country kids do when they don't go to school? he wondered. What he knew for sure was that he wasn't going to genuflect to white folks all summer. It seemed demeaning to him, the “yessir” and “no ma'am” Southern culture required of Black folks. How would the world ever become equal if only colored people showed respect? No, that couldn't be right, and he promised himself he wouldn't do it. White folks needed to see what a Black person looked like who refused to degrade himself on their behalf, and Clement concluded that he was the one to show them.
 
Copyright © 2007 by Daniel Omotosho Black. All rights reserved.

 

Excerpts

Chapter One Come on, clement!” his cousins demanded. “you ain’t got no business in dat store! Granddaddy kill you if he find out you went in there all by yo’self!” Clement smiled at the thought of his own defiance, trying to imagine what eighty-year-old Jeremiah Johnson could possibly do to him, with one bad leg and two failing eyes. Of course a whoopin’ would hurt, he considered, but the pain was always temporal. All he wanted was a soda pop, and he didn’t understand why he couldn’t simply waltz into the General Store and get one. That’s what white folks did when they wanted something; why should he be afraid to do the same? “Clement!” the others screamed more vehemently as he approached the old wooden screen door. Sarah Jane’s tears were more than her mouth could speak. At twelve, she knew never to be found alone with white folk because her grandmother’s threat to whip her good was not to be taken lightly. Stories of Black kids who disappeared after being last seen with whites was enough to keep her at least fifty feet from any of them, so Clement’s audacity frightened her and rendered her mute. Only her tears expressed her fear that he was making a fatal mistake. The boys, Ray Ray and Chop, simply shook their heads, and murmured, “City boys. They think they know everything.” Hoping not to witness a tragedy, the three walked home in the ninety-degree heat and mumbled silent prayers that Granddaddy wouldn’t beat Clement too badly. After all, he was new to the place and didn’t understand the rules of Black Southern life. Chicago had groomed him for fourteen years prior to his arrival in Money, Mississippi, and left him believing that a resident of the Windy City could survive anywhere. Indeed, the day Jeremiah Johnson retrieved him from the Greenwood train station, Clement boasted of insight beyond anything his cousins could imagine. He spoke of prostitutes, pimps, and kids who roamed the streets long after the night-light appeared. The brand-new twenty-dollar bill he excavated from his front pocket elicited praise and envy from sharecropping children who had never seen anything beyond a five. Clement was the teacher who, with feigned exasperation, shared stories about Chicago Negroes who owned houses and never worked for white folks. “Whwhwhwhat d-d-d-dey d-do thththen?” Chop stammered incredulously. Silence was his usual mode, but the notion that Negroes somewhere didn’t submit their labor to whites unleashed an otherwise restrained tongue. At eight, his self-esteem, like rain on a rooftop, was falling in more directions than he could catch. His stuttering kept folks—both his own and others—from planting seeds of intelligence in him, having concluded already that he would make a marvelous field hand one day. His mother had allowed him to wear his one good pair of overalls to meet his citified cousin, who laughed at the only hole she had failed to patch. “They work for theyselves, fool!” Clement proclaimed, although everyone knew these weren’t his folks. “They own they own businesses, and they hire Black folks just like they white.” “Wow,” Chop mumbled. Everybody he knew picked cotton, washed white folks’ clothes, or worked on the railroad in Greenwood. “That ain’t all. Some of ’em even marries white, too. And they live together like it ain’t nothin’!” Clement continued. “You hush up dat kinda talk ’round here boy,” Jeremiah Johnson interrupted. “You ain’t in Chicago no mo. Yous in Mississippi. And round here, coloreds stay wit coloreds and whites stay wit whites. And dat’s de way it is.” Chop lamented Granddaddy’s imposition and planned mentally what he would ask Clement later. He wanted to know more about city life and how he could, one day, live in a house he owned all by himself. Chop refused to stop hoping for the day when Granddaddy—or any Black daddy—could work without giving all his money away.     Clement entered the General Store with an entitlement unknown to Mississippi Negroes in 1955. He didn’t even knock. He just opened the door, walked in, and started looking around for the soda pop machine. “Help ya?” Catherine Cuthbert’s soft soprano voice asked reluctantly. Staring her in the eye, Clement returned, “Sure. Where you keep your soda pops?” “In the big barrel over there,” she drawled, and nodded. Never had a Negro boy looked directly at her without flinching. She knew he couldn’t be from Money or anywhere in Mississippi for that matter. Clement proceeded, humming snippets of Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame,” and retrieved a root beer. Setting it on the countertop, he reached into his right trouser pocket and placed a nickel next to the soda bottle. “You put that nickel in my hand!” she demanded. Clement frowned, surprised. “Excuse me?” Catherine Cuthbert’s hazel eyes narrowed. “I said, put that nickel in my hand—boy!” Clement’s brow puckered at the insult. “There it is! You pick it up!” he sneered, opening the soda and beginning to drink. “I said hand me that nickel, nigger boy!” Her outstretched hand trembled with expectation as her face transformed from cotton to crimson. “I already paid you, lady! If you too lazy to pick up the nickel, that’s your problem, not mine,” Clement belted, and turned to exit. “You’ll never get away with disrespecting me like that!” she screamed. “I already did!” Clement chuckled and skipped away. Who did she think she was anyway, he wondered. “Slavery been over,” he shouted over his shoulder, sipping the root beer like it was a spoil of war. Catherine Cuthbert watched him with a vengeance she could not articulate. Never had a colored boy disobeyed her command, and absolutely never had one attempted to speak to her as an equal. “He just laid that nickel down and expected me to pick it up,” she whispered repeatedly to herself, inciting an internal rage that produced rivers of sweat beads meandering down her rose red forehead. Pacing in fury, she vowed to reclaim her purity from a nigger boy who dared think he could speak to her any kind of way. Catching up with the others, Clement told them what had happened. “Is you crazy?” Sarah Jane yelled. “Don’t you know dat white folks kill colored boys over dat kinda stuff?” Her father had rendered his life one windy, October evening a few years prior after some whites had raped and mutilated his wife. Knowing no other recourse, he killed them. By nightfall, his long legs added to the extensions hanging from the big oak tree on Chapman’s place. Sarah Jane couldn’t explain all the details without wailing uncontrollably, but she tried. “You cain’t come down to Mississippi, Clement, and ack like you still up Norf!” She swung mightily and hit him in the shoulder. “What’s wrong with you, girl?” Clement’s bulging eyes showed that he didn’t comprehend the depth of Sarah Jane’s objection. “No, what’s wrong wit you!” she bellowed in his face. “You think you ain’t colored like de rest o’ us? You think dat jes ’cause you from Chicago, you ain’t got to bow to white folks?” “I ain’t got to bow to nobody,” Clement said proudly. “My momma told me dat I was jes as good as anybody else, and dat she would whip me if she ever caught me bowing my head to white folks.” Sarah Jane swung her arms as though a spirit possessed and said, “Aunt Possum didn’t mean fo you to come down here and sass white folks ’til you git yoself kilt!” She fell to the ground helplessly and released the heavy sobs she had been trying to confine. “Don’t cry, Sarah Jane,” Ray Ray begged, embarrassed. “Everythang gon be all right.” “No, it ain’t!” she screamed. “You know white folks don’t ’low no colored peoples to talk to dem like dat!” “Well, they don’t know me,” Clement boasted. “Anyway, I didn’t do nothin’ wrong. I just went in the store, bought me a soda pop, and paid for it.” Sarah Jane tried not to imagine Clement pleading for his life before a merciless white mob, but each time he spoke, the image became clearer. “Why didn’t you hand the woman the nickel, Clement?” she huffed. “ ’Cause I didn’t have to! All I had to do was pay her, and that’s what I did. I ain’t no slave! She cain’t talk to me like I ain’t nothin’!” Clement had hoped his cousins would celebrate his boldness; instead their reprimand infuriated him. “I ain’t scared o’ white folks! Y’all might be, but I ain’t!” As though she hadn’t heard him, Sarah Jane said, “I hope to God this don’t come to nothin’.” She stood and brushed off her cotton sack dress. “You didn’t have no business bein’ rude to Miss Cuthbert like dat, Clement. You coulda jes put de money in her hand”—she acted out the motion slowly—“and left.” “Okay, okay. Let’s jes fugit about it,” Ray Ray intervened before allowing himself to envision a wounded Clement. Ray Ray was fourteen, too, only a month older than Clement, but at least five inches taller. His overalls, which were always too short and too tight, made him look bound and constrained. Most girls considered him the cutest boy in Money though, with his enviable, flawless, caramel brown complexion and hair that curled at the sight of water. He never said much, afraid of saying the wrong thing, and he hated nothing more than tension. Or maybe looking after his younger brother Chop. Ray Ray named him that after watching him devour a pork chop—bone and all—at six months. Their parents had named him Hope, but once Ray Ray started calling him Chop, his birth name faded into myth. At the moment, Ray Ray simply wanted everybody to stop talking so his nerves could settle. They walked home in silence. Occasionally, Sarah Jane shook her head sadly as she remembered, but she decided to pray now instead of argue. Chop wanted to hear more of Clement’s Chicago stories, but as the youngest of the bunch he had learned early when simply to shut up and follow. He watched Ray Ray kick the same stone for almost a mile, amazed at his brother’s concentration and precision. Some days, he wanted to hug him and tell him he was the greatest big brother in the whole wide world, but fear of rejection kept him from ever doing it. Plus, his stuttering probably wouldn’t have let him get the words out right. Clement wondered what the summer would bring. He had visited before, but now he wouldn’t go home until the end of August. What do colored country kids do when they don’t go to school? he wondered. What he knew for sure was that he wasn’t going to genuflect to white folks all summer. It seemed demeaning to him, the “yessir” and “no ma’am” Southern culture required of Black folks. How would the world ever become equal if only colored people showed respect? No, that couldn’t be right, and he promised himself he wouldn’t do it. White folks needed to see what a Black person looked like who refused to degrade himself on their behalf, and Clement concluded that he was the one to show them. Copyright © 2007 by Daniel Omotosho Black. All rights reserved.
 

Excerpted from The Sacred Place by Daniel Black
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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