Sometime around 1895 in America, Negroes were spreading out and up from the hard past of the poor South seeking food and survival. Among them were a man and woman with four young children: two, three, four, and five years old. The traveling was hard and they were often hungry. They reached what seemed to them to be a large city in Oklahoma . . . and stopped. They had to stop because the mother did not have another step in her feet. She could not bear to drag her children another step.
The husband left them behind, near a small river, as he went to seek a Negro person to get information about a place for his family to sleep a few days and, perhaps, a job. They did not have a morsel of food. He found an old couple who were sharecroppers and worked a piece of land on another man's property. The old couple had only a small room and kitchen they lived in, a small shed for tools and a mule.
Used to seeing such troubles, even having had them themselves, they allowed the man to bring his family into the shed for the little warmth and protection it offered from the cold nights. The old farmers could not, in their heart, allow the sad, bedraggled, unfed and unrested children go hungry and tired. They took some greens and a few potatoes from their garden. The tired mother wanted to help, but was shooed away by the old wife who cooked for the family, her own memories roiling around in her mind. They had no meat to share. Her two chickens were for eggs to sell.
The traveling family arranged themselves against the walls and on the floor in the farmer's small, and now crowded, kitchen for a meal. Then they were situated in the shed to sleep with what worn quilts and rags the old couple could spare. The old woman grimly smiled and said, "I sewn these here'n quiltes myse'f," as she handed them to the wife. Then the old wife took the two youngest children into her kitchen and laid them down on pallets beside the burning stove to keep them from the cold of the night in the shed. The exhausted husband and the farmer talked into the night about the town and work for Negroes there.
Awakening in the morning to the crow of a rooster, the still tired husband, stiff with cold in the shed, slowly removed the ragged quilt from his self. No need to dress. He had not undressed. The farmer took him, walking, to the white man who owned the land. The white man said, "Your woman can work 'round the house and fields with my wife and you can take that ole barn yonder, close up some of them holes in it, and make a home for your family til harvest. People always leavin', movin' on, so there prob'ly will be a house and some land free 'bout that time and you can move and go to work for yourself. Til then, you can work here for food and shelter for your family."
"Thank ya, suh. Mighty kind'a you."
"We ain't got no lotta food, now, but we share." The white man smiled.
"No pay, suh?"
The white farmer smiled, "Not none as I know of . . . yet. Maybe later on. We got to see what kind of workin' man you are. You want it?"
"I'll take it, suh. Thank you kindly."
So that's the way things went and the husband was able to shelter his family and feed them . . . a little. Too tired and disheartened to move on, the husband thought, "At least this ain't Mississippi!"
Things turned out exactly as the old farmer had said they might after he had introduced his new friend to the owner-boss. When sharecropper people moved out of a little piece of shack on a little piece of the owner's land, the owner let the new family move in it to work the land.
They took the sharecropper job, intending to move on to better things when things got better. But life being what it is sometimes, they ended up staying in that place for thirty years . . . until the husband died from overwork and overworry. They had changed shacks a few times, but they never did get their own piece of land or build their own house as the man and his wife had dreamed of doing; living on their own place.
Their eldest boy moved on when he was sixteen. The next oldest, a girl, married at fourteen and moved on. The next child, a girl named Eula, did the same. (Eula would be my great-grandmother.) The youngest child stayed in the place they called "home" around his mother. He was a little retarded from his mother being undernourished and having babies so close together. In the end the two, widowed mother and retarded son, moved in with a friend who needed the little help they could provide.
Now . . . Eula was growing up to be a strong, healthy, lusty woman who wanted something else. She had become tired of Oklahoma and "home" when she was about fourteen. During the same time, she became tired of the farming business: harvesting fields, milking cows for milk she couldn't drink, feeding chickens she had to steal to get a bite of, and sweeping yards endlessly. So Eula married a laborer from the oil fields. She moved into a shotgun shack in a near town with her new husband until something better came along. Something better could be almost anything and everything. And Eula wanted something better.
Well, Eula's husband was a go-getter hardworking man for his wife. He was also a brawny, lusty lover. By 1912 Eula had given birth to several children and both husband and wife were tired, near exhaustion, waiting for some job to pan out. Money was, as usual, almost nonexistent. "Something" was always up ahead, beyond them. But life continued on somehow, as it usually does.
Eula gave birth to my grandmother. She wanted a child named after herself so she named one of her pretty children, my grandmother, EulaLee. The family survived, barely. Eula thought everybody in the world was poor except the owners of the oil wells. There were no schools her children could attend. Even white children had a difficult time getting and keeping a schoolteacher. Those few schools which Negro people managed somehow to make arrangements for were too far away. Eula was getting old for those hard, scrambling times and began to feel it. But she was still young enough to dream, so she set her sight on Chicago. "Someday," she would daydream as she washed her family's clothes down at the creek looking beyond the trees, through space. She cooked her family's meals, looking over the crackling woodstove through a hole in the wall at the far horizon. "Something got to come my way someday. I know it's some money in Chicago."
Around 1912 a Woodrow Wilson was marked in to become president of the United States. In 1913 Woodrow signed into law that ominous amendment to the Constitution, the federal income tax laws--even though the U.S. Supreme Court made constant rulings against it, saying it was unconstitutional. He also signed into law the Federal Reserve System, among other things, taxes that went hard against the people. Still does.
Nineteen thirteen was not a good year for the world because, among other things, there was no cure for the Spanish flu, which took so many people from the face of the Earth. Eula lost two children, but EulaLee was one of those who survived. Barely. Eula and her husband wanted desperately to leave Oklahoma, but there was no way. They both did every kind of job they could just to put a little food in their family's mouths. Working for food only. No money available for them. They were stuck in place.
Woodrow Wilson also approved the Underwood Tariff, which reduced duties on foreign importations and, since they competed with American industry, it created greater problems for the common working people. Many tens of thousands of American workers were put out of jobs. Does not that seem strange for an American president to do? Or for any leader of a people to do? Because then, a depression came, bringing with it, of course, huge, widespread despair. With no production for American working people, starvation and much misery became nationwide. It will be done again and again by Earth's leaders the people put into office, or those who just take leadership away from the people. It will be done to all peoples, all colors, all over the world. The love of money is the root of all evil. Believe me.
Eula's family could not pay their rent, but the owner of the shotgun shack in town did not put them out. At least the owner knew them. He thought if the dilapidated shack was to sit empty, there was no telling who or how many would squat in it and eventually tear it completely up.
Eula's husband worked for a white landowner who gave him an automobile that did not run and had no gas even if it could have run. The husband worked on it a couple of months, finding parts, even stealing parts from cars that were parked and discarded because it took money to run a car, and the previous owners had none. Finally the husband stole some gas. He told Eula, "If we can get somewhere else, maybe East, maybe I could find some work."
Eula's thought was, "Chicago." They started planning their trip to somewhere, maybe Chicago.
In 1914, the government under Woodrow Wilson started a small war with Mexico. (Financed with the new income tax resources.) The war was quickly settled because small nations are powerless against those who control the money. Usually.
Eula's husband was not called upon to enter the military because he had a family and he was Black. And who knew where everyone was, anyway? People, all colors, were scattered all over the country, trying to find work or food, trying to survive. The military call was heaviest among the small middle class, the people who divided the rich and the poor. After them, the poorest people were taken. Both classes seemed dispensable . . . to the governing body.
EulaLee, my grandmother, was growing up through all these things.
The family started their journey to the East in the faulty car with stolen gas, hungry children, and twenty-eight cents. Sometimes they had to push or pull the dying automobile. When they could, they stole gas in the middle of the night by siphoning it from some rich man's car out too late in a dark place. They were about one-hundred-ninety miles from Chicago one night when the car stopped for the last time. Wouldn't, couldn't, go any farther.
The exhausted, hungry little family sat on the side of the road waiting for the dawn. When it was light enough, they looked around to see where they were. They were in the hills, farming country, cattle country. The good husband, disgusted, stood up from the ground, cold and stiff, took a deep breath and said, "We can't wait for no Chicago! I'm gonna go look for a job." When he returned four hours later, he had found work in exchange for a place to stay.
Thinking of how much she loved him, Eula jumped up, tired and heavyhearted though she had been. She kissed her man, then gathered and hugged her children together for warmth. She was trying to smile at life in the midst of her feelings of love for her husband and her children. She thought, "Well, we all together, goin on our way somewheres." She turned her face to the landscape again, and really looked around herself. She thought back to her parents and where she had come from and all she had been through. Then she sat back down on the ground and cried.
EulaLee petted her mother, Eula's back, as the little girl looked off into the surrounding space listening to a rooster crow somewhere off in the distance. It was full of hazy purple hills and trees, green and pretty against the pale blue sky. As young as EulaLee was, knowing hunger, depravation, and desperation, all she could see around herself was space . . . empty, empty, hungry space.
In 1917 EulaLee was ten years old and the little family was still there, living and working in that area. They were able to do a little better with money when a war was struck up with Germany.
Pacifists all over the country were crying out for Peace. They were called subversives and "The People" were told that Germany had started a war against all mankind, etc. Though many, many people fought against it, conscription began. Motion pictures were made showing Germans raping underage girls and other horrendous things in American households. The draft age for men was lowered from twenty-one to eighteen years: Of course, they could not vote or go into bars or other sundry things, but . . .
At first, the newspapers were angry at these things. But soon, strangely, they were silenced. The day of the freedom of the press seemed over. All males between eighteen and thirty began to register for the draft.
Most newspapers and radios applauded and many women stood with proud eyes watching their sons march off to war. Heroes. But, later, when their sons and husbands and brothers returned with no legs or no arms . . . or dead . . . there was a new and different knowledge in the air. Of course, it was the same as in any war. All wars. That is why God hates all wars, He does not bless any side, contrary to earthly teachings and beliefs. He will not bless death and greed. God is Love.
But the time for peace was not yet. In my limited vision, in some chaotic space, there was an angry man in Europe. His name was Hitler, and he was taking his place in a long line, following, among others, Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan, Napoleon, great false religious leaders and too many others. He waited for his turn to begin.
All of this happened while EulaLee was growing up. The family was too poor to have a radio or newspapers and none of them read well anyway. Not one of the family members had proper schooling. They did not know the world that was taking shape around them. But they heard of the money that could be made in the new plants for the making of instruments of war . . . in cities like Chicago.
Older than her actual years, the mother Eula thought of Chicago and smiled at the old dream. Time and circumstance had bent and broken some of her ambitions. Now, her ambitions were for her children; she wanted to find a way for them to go to school and learn to get out of poor, pitiful lives.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Some People, Some Other Place by J. California Cooper. Copyright © 2004 by J. California Cooper. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, 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.