"Get up with the sun, get to work by the gun, go to bed when you're done."
Jenniemae Harrington was an underestimated, underappreciated, extremely overweight woman who was very religious, dirt poor, and illiterate. She was uneducated, self taught, clever, and quietly cunning. Born on an unknown day of an unknown month duringthe harvest season of 1923 on a small sharecropper farm near Hissop, Alabama, Jenniemae picked October 18 as her birth date because on that date, at the age of four years, she had for the very first time been permitted to wear flowers in her hair to church.It was as memorable a day as any, and a very good day in a long line of difficult days. There were not many simple pleasures for the Harrington family, but at least on Sundays everyone tried hard to greet the Lord's Day with a smile, and wearing flowers inone's hair was a special way to celebrate church day.
Home was the farm. The farm, like most sharecroppers' farms, was located on the least arable land in the worst location--it was land unlikely to produce more than a barely sustainable crop even if all the atmospheric conditions were perfect. The Harringtonslived in a one-room shanty with enough holes in the roof to collect rain even if there was only a thin mist during the night. Jenniemae was born to Molly and Jefferson Harrington in 1923, one of twelve children. Hissop is a small town not far from Equality,Alabama, which Jenniemae said was exactly what the people who lived there meant to call it when they named it that, because equality down there was a thing for white folks and not at all meant for black folks. As Jenniemae said, "That e-quality ain't nothin'more than a white word, jus' a word--nothin' more, nothin' less, and surely not meant nor 'tended for a colored man." And she was right. The laws there were meant to protect white folk, and all the rest just came to the table when and how they were told.
Hissop was home because it was where Jenniemae's family ended up, not because it was a chosen home site. And Jenniemae told me that if it hadn't been for her father's ill-willed nature, they never would have left.
"Now, if'n it hadn' been for my daddy bein' to who he was, I wouldn' be standin' here right now and takin' care of you childr'n. If we had had us a nice and kind daddy . . . well, then, we would best be livin' down there in Hissop still, to this very day.So what I am sayin' is that a person can't always tell when a bad thing is the cause of a good thing to come, or if a bad thing is jus' always goin' to be a bad thing forever and on."
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"I mean that it was all the cause of the evilness inside my daddy's veins that his blood turned dark and then the blood darkness made him one bad-angry man. Some said his blood went bad from one too many humiliations, which will do it to a man. One toomany humiliations can turn a good man into an evil devil. Which is why one night when he was out with his liquor, my mama packed us up and we ran away."
Jenniemae's mother fled their drunk and abusive father and Hissop, Alabama, when Jenniemae was six years old. Of the twelve children born to Molly and Jefferson, Jenniemae was the sixth, which is why the number 6 became her most important, "standin' talland walkin' out" number. Six played a major role in Jenniemae's life and therefore played a role in our family's lives, because whatever affected Jenniemae affected us. For instance, Jenniemae wore six hair pins to tie back her hair in a bun; she always setrows of six cookies on the cookie plate, rows of six carrots on the carrot plate, and rows of six celery slices on the celery plate; she set up six clotheslines outside to dry the washed wet clothes, and when it was possible, she hung six pieces of clothingon each line. She sang six verses of each song, dusted each bookshelf six times, every book spine six times, and secretly tapped the banister six times as she ascended and descended the staircase.
When Jenniemae's mother left Alabama, she headed north and just kept going. She had nothing more than what she needed--her children and the clothing each one had on his or her back. They planned to live with a cousin who had settled in Washington, D.C.When one of us would ask about those years in Alabama, Jenniemae had little to say. She would tell bits and pieces about the long, hard, hot, and humid days she had spent in the fields picking from the time she could stand up until the time they headed north."Pickin' cotton, pickin' berries, pickin' beets, pickin' bo-weevils, ants, spiders, chiggers, skeeters, and any other crawlin' and itchin' ugly insect you ever laid your eyes upon. Nope, nothin' to talk 'bout in those times. Nothin' but bent-over, achin' backsand hotness.
"We went up north 'cause. Just 'cause. If a person was to go away to some other place than where they lived, well, then, that person was goin' to go north," she told me. Jenniemae said that her people went to Washington, D.C., because they figured if thepresident lived there, life for a colored person would be better. In Washington, D.C., they all hoped they could get decent jobs. "Little did they know," she said, "and most over, little didn't they know."
Once they got to D.C. by the back of anything that moved--"Back o' the train, back o' the truck, back o' the back"--the extended Harrington family lived in a run-down, two-room bad excuse for a house located in Foggy Bottom, which today is home to theJohn F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts, the State Department, the Department of Interior, and the George Washington University campus. In those days it was an area mostly occupied by the working poor. Since 1860 Foggy Bottom had been a neighborhood whereNegroes, as we called African-Americans back then, settled after they fled from slavery and where German and Irish immigrants settled upon arriving in this country. By 1920 the area was the home to the largest Negro business and residential community in theUnited States. It also became known as the home to Negro jazz and blues entertainers, and Negro intellectuals and artists. It was where Jenniemae grew up and spent most of her childhood.
Fancy automobiles driven almost entirely by white men and women ran along the paved D.C. streets while horse-drawn buggies, driven almost entirely by Negro men, pulled both cargo and people through the bumpy, stone-cobbled roads of Foggy Bottom. When theUnited States went to war in 1941, everyday life changed for most white people in the country as a result of gas rationing, soaring rents, and rising food prices. But for the black people of Foggy Bottom, life didn't change much at all. As Jenniemae said, "Getup with the sun, get to work by the gun, go to bed when you're done." From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Jenniemae & James by Brooke Newman. Copyright © 2010 by Brooke Newman. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.