Thursday, January 21, 2021

Separate Tables

One morning when I was cropping in the tobacco fields of someone I will call Semolina Pilchard, the tractor pulled up with what appeared to be an empty sled, and a little black boy, maybe five or six years old, popped up out of the thing – he’d sneaked in and hidden in the bottom just as the tractor was pulling out from the barn. 

The kid was so pleased with himself for successfully escaping his mama – who was too busy stringing tobacco to notice – that he busted into squeals of laughter. That surprising and delightful sound, like the one babies make when you put your mouth on their belly and make flatulent sounds, got us all laughing, too

Pilchard's right-hand man, Jackson, who was sort of our overseer in the field, told the boy he better get his self back to the barn before his mama whupped his behind, but the little guy didn’t scare easily. He’d pretend to leave, then would sneak back through the towering stalks of tobacco and pop up next to one of us like some sort of field sprite.

He bedeviled each of us, partly with our indulgence, crawling through the stalks to untie our boots, sticking tobacco worms on our shirts, knocking our hats off, and after each of his tricks, he’d dart off like a water bug, howling with laughter. 

If our culture’s symbology allowed it, I would say that on a merciless white-hot morning, he was a ray of darkshine, a mercurial imp of black joy that blessed us with innocent laughter the way only kittens and puppies and small children can.

When the sled was full, Jackson started up the tractor. “Come on, boy, I’m takin’ you back to yo’ mama,” he said. At the barn, the kid got some scolding, but Jackson defended him: “What the hell? He ain’t doin’ no harm, let’im come back out with us.” So the little black boy continued to entertain us till dinner by which, of course, I mean lunch. 

Back at the barn, the horseplay continued while we washed up. Wherever we croppers went, he went with us. We washed, he washed. We got our paper plates, he got his paper plates. We went over to the picnic tables under a pecan tree with the other white people, and he went with us. We started to eat, he started to eat. 

“You better run go find yo’ mama, boy,” Jackson told him.

“Nah, you better go find yo’ mama,” the kid shot back, then threw his head back and laughed.

“I ain’t kiddin’, boy. Git back over to the shed with yo’ mama!”

The kid pointed a fork full of mashed potatoes at Jackson. “Nah, I ain’t kiddin’ you, Mr. Jackson man,” he said, clearly wanting to drag out this joke as long as possible. 

Jackson put his plate down, bolted from his bench, walked over to the kid just as he was putting those potatoes in his mouth, yanked him up by the back of his collar, and said, “You git your black ass over there with yo' mama right NOW! You don’t belong over here! Now GO, and don’t come back, you hear me?!

There was a momentary hush at the white people's table. At the black people's table, the kid got a scolding of the "what-I-told-you?" variety.

We felt a little awkward for a while, and the food didn’t go down as easily as it could’ve, but it didn’t take long for everything to get back to normal. Jackson had done a difficult thing. He had restored order, keeping the links in our community's Great Chain of Being in their assigned places. Someone was going to have to tell that kid sometime, and the situation forced that duty on Jackson.

I don’t think he enjoyed it. 

After we finished eating, the afternoon fields were white-hot again until another damn storm started building, and the croppers’ laughter was of the sordid, bitter variety, and I’m guessing that it was not my laughter alone that sprang, as the poet William Blake said, from excess of sorrow, not of joy.

It was 1962. What else were we supposed to do?

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