I remember my grandfather, Pops, bristling with anger when hearing Black folks referred to as ‘Colored.’ I knew that it was a term the government and the media used to describe us prior to, say, 1970. As a little boy, I asked him why it upset him so much when anyone who knew him could say with conviction that Mr. Harold Hayes Sr. was one of the nicest, laid-back men they ever met. His response still resonates with me today.”We ain’t ‘Colored’ because something that’s colored can be erased,” he said. “We are Black Americans or even Negroes, but never that. We can’t take our skin off or erase it.”
When I was five, I stayed at a roadside motel with my grandparents, Pops, and Lee Ellen Hayes. It was just the three of us, and I reveled in being able to have their attention all to myself: no brother, uncles or aunties, just little ol’ Duck. I woke up early in the morning at the motel, and my grandfather was still asleep, resting his back (I’ll return to his back), and Lee Ellen was up watching old Western series. I asked if I could walk around the old-fashioned outdoor motel, and she agreed. She left the door to the room wide open, and I set out to explore my surroundings.
It was only a two-story motel, with an old-fashioned telephone room with two operators. I walked past the telephone room, and I returned the ‘good morning’ greeting of the two middle-aged white women working there. One of them asked if I would like a sweet, cinnamon roll, and back then, I loved sweet anything. I nodded, and they cut me a slice, placed it on a napkin, and gave it to me. I thanked them, and then I smashed it in less than one minute. They smiled at me and offered me the rest of the package. I smiled and nodded my head up and down. They tied up the package (Hostess, I believe), and I thanked them and sprinted back to our motel room, pleased as punch with the unexpected gift.
I walked into our room and told my grandmother, Lee Ellen, what had happened. I was giddy with glee. She didn’t say a word; She just held her hand out for the package, which I gave to her. She put a robe over her housecoat and left the room, with me walking behind her, puzzled as to what was going on. I watched in horror as she stalked into the telephone room and sat the package of cinnamon rolls on the desk between the two ladies. Their looks matched mine.”Thank you for your generosity,” my grandmother said, using her ‘good English.’ “He doesn’t need Anything from you, ladies. Have a nice day.”
She took me by the hand back to our room, and then she explained to me the reason behind her action.
“We don’t take charity from anyone, especially not people who gave you a treat as if you were some kind of pet,” she said. “Anything you want or need, we will provide. Remember, there is nothing free in this life.”
I stopped being a fan of cinnamon rolls that day.
The lessons I learned from my grandparents, all of them seemed to have the same tenets; work hard, do your best, don’t embarrass the family, and don’t trust white people. No offense to anyone, but I understood at a young age that they were different from us and that my grandfather had been called a boy his whole life by white people. Imagine that level of disrespect for a minute. A grown man, being called a boy by white people of all ages. My hands tremble with rage at the indignation that a veteran of World War II, who spent three days upside down in a Jeep with a dead man after hitting a land mine (which explains his bad back), could be called Anything less than a man because of his race.
When I read ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ by Lorraine Hansberry as a teenager, I saw the many parallels between the Younger family’s values and the values pushed upon my brother by our mother, uncles, aunties, and grandparents and me. It was then that I thought of the legacy of us, Black folks. Each generation pushes the next generation towards the American Dream, using education and hard work to propel our children to goals we could have never imagined. Since 1865, that has been our goal, the backbone of our culture; we want what was promised…
That’s us in a nutshell. From the time we were brought here (stolen), we have been forced to make the best out of the least, to create dreams out of nightmares, and to smile despite the harshness of our situation. We’ve had to fight, yell, and protest for every right, every step forward, yet the fight continues for equality in a country built on the backs of Black folks. Indeed.
The food we call ‘soul food’ is part of our culture, because once upon a time, it was the best that we could get. The slave-owners would have a hog butchered, then give the slaves the scraps they did not want, such as the pig’s feet, brains, tail, intestines, head, etc. We took those scraps, seasoned them, and made them delicious and hearty enough for us to survive. Hog’s head cheese, chitterlings, etc., all came from us making something out of nothing. I’m not a fan of most of those foods, but man, crackers, and souse (hog’s head cheese) with a cold beer is something special. Eating soul food is another way of acknowledging the ancestors and paying homage to the struggles they endured so that we could be here.
When I think of my culture, I think of the music, the laughter, the styles, and the stories of my forebears. I think of the slaves who cringed beneath whips, picked cotton and dreamed of freedom for their children. I think of the sharecroppers who were cheated out of a fair deal but endured it while dreaming of their children’s education. I think of the emigrants from the South, who fled to the northern cities looking for jobs and living space while dreaming of the equality their children were sure to achieve while blossoming “in the warmth of other suns.” I think of those who marched for civil rights and equality while dreaming their children might one day have the freedom to become whatever they would like to be. I think about myself, the daydream of my ancestors, and I look skyward and thank them for this culture; this Blackness makes me work hard for our past, present, and future.
We tell our story with everything we do, from cooking to dancing, and it is our duty to impart the wisdom of our ancestors on our children. Work hard, fight for our rights as human beings and citizens, and push the kids to be better than those who came before.
I used to tell my daughters to name their children nice, safe names, which would survive the initial racial purging of job applications. I apologized to them both recently and told them to name their children whatever unique monikers they’d like. Because if I build a legacy of creating my own jobs for them to follow, then why would their children need to work for anyone who would throw their applications away because of their ethnic names? Indeed. I’ll keep pushing the importance of our culture so that my grandchildren will understand the struggles that have gotten us to this place…
Marlon S. Hayes is an author, essayist, business owner, publisher, and proud son, father, husband, and grandfather. He can be followed on Amazon, and on Facebook at Marlon’s Writings and Voices from the Bleachers.