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Things Ain’t Always Gone Be This Way

For Grandpa Charlie

My mother never told any hard-luck stories about the Jim Crow South on purpose. She talked to me about the brutality, the racism, but always had a way of framing herself as a heroine in her stories. Once, when I was talking to her about a mass lynching that had taken place in Walton County, Georgia, in 1946—I’d read about it in a book—Mama casually mentioned, “Oh yes, I remember that. That happened right up the road from me.”[1]

“You were a young girl then, weren’t you, Mama?”

“That’s right. Only thirteen.”

I let some moments pass. Then: “How did that make you feel, Mama?”

A dangerous question, for my mother wasn’t one to dwell on feelings. She had a way of understating her early life, the pain, the trauma. And when pressed on this history, she’d slow to silence, or abruptly move on, for as she once told me, if she started crying, she might not ever stop.

“I was angry,” she said. “I kept expecting the Black men in Walton County to do something, but they never did. And I promised myself, when I grew up, I wasn’t going to take that kind of abuse. Like my daddy used to say: Things ain’t always gone be this way.”

Predictably, she changed the subject to that time when a White man had cursed in her daddy’s face, on the land Grandpa Charlie rented as a tenant farmer. As the White man kept shouting—”cutting a jig” is how Mama called it—Grandpa had ordered one of my mother’s brothers to get his shotgun, and then the White man had jumped in his car and driven away. My grandfather had sat on the porch all night with the gun, waiting for the White man to return—perhaps with the Ku Klux Klan—but nothing ever happened.

Mama had a way of circumventing, until what was left was her father’s anger, his courage in the face of a disrespectful, racist White man. Other Black folks in Georgia were murdered, but not Charlie James. My grandfather was a farmer who never owned land or even finished grade school, but Mama cast him always as the victor, not the victim. There were many of my mother’s stories about her father’s moxie. It took me years to clarify the ways that Mama canted her father’s suffering in the segregated Deep South. By focusing on his individual courage, she drew attention away from his oppression. She made his resistance possible, his everyday acts extraordinary.

But there was that day when she talked to me about the first time she voted. She insisted that the Black people in her hometown of Eatonton, Georgia, could vote. They weren’t truly disenfranchised. Every time there was an election she repeated this, noting that she’d always voted. It was part of her history.  I’d grown up watching documentaries of civil rights protests on public television, seeing the limp, bleeding bodies of teenagers and young adults dressed in neat church clothes, pulled from the streets where they politely demanded their rights and were beaten by hard-faced White police officers. I was amazed that my mother had exercised her right to vote, without drama or broken bones.

“For real?” I asked.

“Oh, sure,” she said.

“Your parents, too?”

“Well, no. Your grandma didn’t read that well, and Daddy, he couldn’t read or write at all. And you had to be literate to vote in those days.”

About ten years ago, while doing genealogical research, I’d found the marriage certificate of my maternal grandparents, Florence Paschal and Charlie James. I saw their neat signatures, which confused me. If my grandfather couldn’t read or write, who had signed his name? My mother told me, Grandpa Charlie had signed his own name, though that’s all he knew, because he hadn’t finished elementary school. The White man who had owned the land that Grandpa’s family lived on would require the African American children to work during planting and harvest season. This had constantly interrupted their education, one that had been barebones to begin with for African American children in the early twentieth century. That’s why—somehow—when Grandpa had become an adult, he’d found a more liberal White man to rent land from. And he wasn’t a “sharecropper,” either; he was allowed to keep whatever crops he grew for himself. Grandpa had promised himself that nobody was going to come to the schoolhouse and interrupt his children’s learning and make them work in the fields.

I knew enough not to question my mother about why Grandpa never learned to read, or how he felt. We don’t talk about pain in my family. We only talk about what you must do to walk around it. A few seconds after informing me of her father’s illiteracy—though she never called it that—my mother moved the point of our discussion away from her father’s disenfranchisement to his insistence that his children finish high school.  He would demand that all his progeny “get their lesson out,” so they’d have their education.

She told me how proud Grandpa had been when she had graduated from Spelman College and when she came back to Eatonton to teach at Butler Baker, the new, segregated high school for Negroes. How he’d bragged on her to anybody who would listen. So proud that when he used to drive her to the town’s segregated dime store, he’d dress up in his church suit and tie and wear the good shoes that pinched his corns.

• •

I’m embarrassed that this conversation about voting took place at least twenty years ago, and all during that time, I didn’t have the curiosity to question my mother further. I’m not a politician or an activist: I’m a poet and writer, and even though I study history, the twentieth century isn’t my wheelhouse.  It was only two weeks ago—while finishing up the first draft of this essay—that I decided to look up the details of “voter suppression.”

Certainly, I already knew that in the American South, the history of keeping Black folks from voting goes back to the nineteenth century. Before the end of the Civil War, and the end of slavery, African Americans legally couldn’t vote in the South.  After the passage of the fifteenth amendment in 1870, Black men should have been able to vote. (It wouldn’t be until 1920 and the passage of the nineteenth amendment that White women were given that right.) But southern states found a myriad of ways to work around federal laws in the late 1800s. In my mother’s home state of Georgia, a 1908 law outright declared its intentions: it was called the Disenfranchisement Act. According to historian Laughlin McDonald:

The new law provides for registration by any male who was sane, had no criminal record, had paid all taxes since 1877, had met the existing residency requirements, and had satisfied one of the following additional requirements: 1) had served honorably in wars of the United States or in the forces of the Confederate States, 2) had descended from persons who had such service records, 3) was of “good character” and could understand the duties of citizenship, 4) could read and write in English any paragraph of the state and federal constitutions, or 5) owned at least forty acres of land or property assessed for taxation at a value of $500.[2]

There was no actual racial prohibition in the Disenfranchisement Act, but of course, the benefit was skewed toward White men. By 1908, all of the officials in each Georgia county who assessed fitness for voting were White. Since the Union forces had pulled out of the state in 1877, there had been lynchings of Black men in order to keep them from reaching such respectful levels as holding office. In 1906, two years before the act, there had been mass killings of African Americans during the Atlanta Race Riot.

In 1951, my mother had left Eatonton and moved to Atlanta, the year that she enrolled at Spelman College. When she graduated, she returned to Eatonton to teach at Butler Baker School; it was her responsibility, she told me. She wanted to give something back to her hometown.

Through my Grandmother Florence, my mother was descended from the Paschals and the Napiers, two White, formerly slaveholding families of Eatonton who had ancestors who’d fought in the Confederate war. But Mama was Black, and thus, she couldn’t prove that link, not legally. Her family did not own land, either. So she couldn’t fulfil two of the requirements to vote. However, as a schoolteacher, she was assumed to be of “good character,” and she could pass the literacy test. In 1958—the year before my mother married my father and left Eatonton again—there were thirty questions total on the literacy test, all of which had to be answered. Here are fifteen of them:

  1. What is a republican form of government? [3]
  2. What are the names of the three branches of the United States government?
  3. In what State Senatorial District do you live and what are the names of the county or counties in such District?
  4. What is the name of the State Judicial Circuit in which you live and what are the names of the counties or county in such Circuit?
  5. What is the definition of a felony in Georgia?
  6. How many Representatives are there in the Georgia House of Representatives and how does the Constitution of Georgia provide that that be apportioned among the several counties?
  7. What does the Constitution of Georgia prescribe as the qualifications of Representatives in the Georgia House of Representatives?
  8. How does the Constitution of the United States provide that it may be amended?
  9. Who is the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Georgia and who is the Presiding Justice of that Court?
  10. Who may grant pardons and paroles in Georgia?
  11. Who is the Solicitor General of the state judicial circuit in which you live and who is the judge of such circuit? (If such circuit has more than one judge, name them all.)
  12. If the Governor of Georgia dies, who exercises the executive power, and if both the Governor and the person who succeeds him dies, who exercises the executive power?
  13. a) What does the Constitution of the United States provide regarding the suspension of the privilege of the writ of Habeas Corpus?
    b) What does the Constitution of Georgia provide regarding the suspension of the writ of Habeas Corpus?
  14. What are the names of the persons who occupy the following state offices in Georgia?
    1) Governor
    2) Lieutenant Governor
    3) Secretary of State
    4) Attorney General
    5) Comptroller General
    6) State Treasurer
    7) Commissioner of Agriculture
    8) State School Superintendent
    9) Commissioner of Labor
  15. How many congressional districts in Georgia are there and in which one do you live?

Variations of these literacy tests existed throughout the South until 1965 when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act. But before then, the Black vote was “suppressed,” meaning African Americans had become afraid of what would happen when they tried to vote.

As I looked at the list of questions on the Georgia test, I thought of how my mother had beaten so many odds. First, to be able to finish high school, unlike her parents. Then, to be able to read. Finally, to even understand this humiliating, internecine questionnaire. Mama had been so matter-of-fact about the literacy test, but as I looked at the questions—how much detail one had to remember, how much reading comprehension was required—I began to weep.

And I thought of how my mother had set aside suffering, once again.

• •

I don’t remember when Mama became a community activist in the city of Durham, North Carolina, the place where she and my father moved our family in 1973. I didn’t even know what an activist was.

I just remember that, at some point, my mother had acquired a lot of very loud friends. Some of her friends were “bourgie”—light-skinned and “proper” speaking. Others were “of the people,” with large afros and African-styled garb. But they came together to meet at our church, St. Joseph A.M.E., and she always took me with her. (I was the baby, and my big sisters refused to babysit.) She’d remind me to bring my books because she knew I’d get bored, but I loved to read.

I’d sit in the corner of the church fellowship hall scanning the pages of my book, but I’d eavesdrop on the meetings. Mama was a passionate speaker, and sometimes her friends would chuckle, saying, “Alright now, Trellie. Calm down.” They aired complaints of the Black folks in the city: How the laws had changed but White folks had not. How the school board in Durham didn’t spend the same amount of money on the schools or roads on the African American side of town—though we didn’t have that term “African American” in the seventies; we were “Black” with a big B.

Years later, my mother would tell me, her friends weren’t just meeting to talk loudly. They belonged to an organization called the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People. The committee had been formed in 1935 by a group of prominent Black male citizens. Originally, it had been called the Durham Committee on Negro Affairs.[4] These men had been some of the most successful African Americans in Durham. For example, there had been Charles Clinton Spaulding, head of the North Carolina Mutual Insurance Company, and James E. Shephard, who had founded a college for Blacks in Durham, which later became North Carolina Central University. When I was a little girl, my mother worked as an adjunct professor at this institution.

In 1976, when Jimmy Carter ran as the democratic nominee for president of the United States, my mother and her committee friends were concerned about Black voters in Durham. Because of the ways that White people had kept African Americans from voting before 1965, not enough were registered to vote. And in the eleven years since the Voting Rights Act had been signed into law, there had been a deflation of excitement about voting, too.  That meant Jimmy Carter might not win, and even worse, the other candidates “down ballot”—the local candidates that had Black folks’ best interest at heart—might not win, either. But Mama and the committee planned to do something about that.

That year I was nine years old and Mama took me canvassing with her. She greased and brushed my hair into two ponytails, decorated them with yarn ribbons, and dressed me in a cute dress and ankle socks with my comfortable shoes. And she explained what our job would be.

We had to walk around the Black neighborhoods—for Durham was still de facto segregated—and get as many Black people to register to vote for the presidential election as possible. And we had to tell them about the best candidates for local positions, too.  Some of those local candidates weren’t Black, but they were friends to our communities, and we had to support those candidates. It wasn’t enough to vote for president of the United States. You had to vote for the mayor of your town or city, the members of the city council, and the board of education. You had to vote every time an election came around.  And Black folks literally had died to secure our right to vote. So voting wasn’t just about rights, Mama told me. It was about the fact that we needed to honor the Black folks who had come before us, the ones who weren’t here anymore.

She spoke to me as if I knew what she meant about politics. I didn’t know at all, but I nodded gravely in response.  Fortunately, I didn’t have to memorize that information, because when Mama knocked on the door, she already had her speech prepared:  She was registering Black folks to vote because Gerald Ford had been Richard Nixon’s right-hand man during his presidential administration, and Nixon had lied when he said he hadn’t been a crook. And now, Ford—she never called him “President Ford”—had pardoned Nixon, and that ought to tell us all we needed to know. Mama talked about the other, local candidates, too, those who were friends to the Black community in Durham.

There was one home we stopped by, small and neat with a short stack of steps and a few flowers in the yard. That day, the lady who answered the door was light-skinned and maybe forty-five, though again, I was nine, so she probably seemed ancient to me. Her face was apathetic, and she sighed in a bored way as she explained, it didn’t matter who somebody voted for president, because these White folks were going to do whatever they wanted.

I expected my mother to correct the light-skinned lady. Maybe even start shouting, because Mama wasn’t known for holding her tongue. Instead, she nudged me toward the lady, asking, was her message of futility what we wanted to send to our children? That they didn’t have any power? That they couldn’t ever change their circumstances? Mama’s voice had turned “proper,” the accent of a schoolteacher who had graduated from Spelman College and had a master’s degree from another university as well.

I thought the lady would close the door on us, but she looked at me and smiled. Told me, I sure had some pretty long hair, and Mama nudged me again.

“Tell the nice lady who you want to be president, baby.”

On cue, I said, “I’m voting for Jimmy Carter!”

Mama held out the registration clipboard and pen to the lady, and after some hesitation, the lady took both and wrote down her information.

On voting Tuesday that year, Mama picked me up after school and drove us to the polls. She told me she had a very important job for me to do. But first, she needed to remind me of how I was reared, how I should remember to respect my elders.

She explained that I would take the hand of each old, Black person she would send my way. These would be people who couldn’t read. They knew the candidates they wanted to vote for, but because they couldn’t recognize the names on the ballot, they needed me to call out all the names for them, and then, they’d tell me which of those names they wanted to vote for. Under no circumstances was I to laugh or ask these old people any rude questions about why they couldn’t read.  If I did, I would hurt their feelings, like those children hurt me at school when they teased me for being chubby, and I didn’t want to make anybody cry, did I?

I don’t know how many old Black folks I helped at the polls, only that when I stood in the booth with them, I did what my mother had asked. I called out the names, and they’d tell me who they wanted to vote for. Then, very carefully, I put my finger by each name they’d chosen.  I watched as they filled out the ballot. And I’d beam as each old person heaped praise on me, telling me how smart I was, how sweet. What a good little girl my mother had raised me to be.

When I’d come out of the booth, I’d call, “Mama, I voted!”

“You sure did, baby!” she’d say. “And don’t you feel good?”

Then, she’d point another old, Black person my way.


[1] The book I’d read was Laura Wexler’s Fire in the Canebrake: The Last Mass Lynching in America (New York: Scribner, 2003).

[2] Laughlin McDonald, A Voting Rights Odyssey: Black Enfranchisement in Georgia (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003): 41.

[3] “A 1958 Citizenship Test from the Georgia State Voter Registration Act.” Digital Public Library of America.

[4] “History.” Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People.