I developed an appreciation for stories from the many books Daddy surrounded me with, most of which were written by white authors. Daddy was a tenth-grade dropout, and he wasn’t entirely sure how to feed this voracious appetite his little girl had for books, so he asked the experts – the white teachers in the community – and they confidently gave him titles like Charlotte’s Web, Little House on the Prairie, Amelia Bedelia, Beezus and Ramona. They meant well. They saw that spark in me, and they wanted me to read writers they knew and understood. These were all good books, but they didn’t feed my soul, BUT because they were all I had available to me, I made it work. Thank God for Mrs. Kennedy in third grade who introduced me to books by Black writers. SHE helped me to see that there was a wealth of literature written by Black and Brown people. Once Daddy found out, along with me, that Black folks wrote books, he went on a journey to make sure those books were on my bookshelf too.
So, Daddy made sure we regularly ordered books from the Scholastic Book Fair and he also made sure to take me to the little public library in our town of Ariton, AL until I could take myself. Once he deemed me old enough to travel on my own, I would take my little red wagon (which I would fill with books) and pull it up the hill past the Bowdens residence where my adopted mother worked as a domestic worker, and then down the hill past the Junior Food Store where I would often take my spare change and go play Pac Man and pinball. Then I would continue walking down the hill past Jacobs Hardware and Service Station where Mr. Thomas Jacobs would call out to me to “tell M.C. hey.” Depending on whether he was busy or not, he might ask how I was doing in school. I would say, “Straight A’s, Mr. Jacobs,” and he would say, “Good girl.” Then I would start walking again past the Jersey Queen where I would later get an ice cream, past Dr. Zumstein’s office and then into the library. It was just one small room, but to me, back then, it felt like a little slice of heaven. Mrs. Lavender, the librarian, learned quickly that my age and my reading level didn’t necessarily match up. By the time I was eight or nine I had graduated to the more grown-up books like Gone With The Wind or The Thorn Birds. I have said before and I will say it again, had I not had books, there is no telling how I would have learned about the things young girls need to know. So, in that way, the books I read by white authors DID provide a foundation for my love of reading, but my love of storytelling came from a place not contained by the leafy pages of a book.
I developed a love of storytelling from my Daddy and his brothers, J.C., Walter, and Lonnie. THEY are the reason why I am a writer today. Yes, I learned structure and form from Judy Bloom and Louis Lowry, but it was those Saturday afternoons in rural Alabama underneath those pecan trees in my backyard, that I learned how to tell a story in such a way that my audience would be in the palm of my hands. I learned fables, tall tales, and comedic timing from my daddy and uncles, but also their many close friends like Mr. Louie Frank Miller, Mr. Sammy Hayes, Mr. J.W. Warren, and so many more, like the Tuskegee Airmen who daddy had befriended during his time in the military. Men rich with stories that died when they died in a lot of cases.
If Daddy and his friends saw me hanging around, they would "mostly" clean up their stories so they were “child friendly” but so expansive that I would sit in my swing and let their stories wash over me all afternoon and into the early evening if Daddy would let me hang around that long.
Uncle Lonnie was the main storyteller. He told this story about a Black man who was being pursued by the police because he had stolen a pig from a local white farmer’s pig pen. Well, according to Uncle Lonnie, the Black man thought quick on his feet, reached into his backseat and found his wife’s hat and shawl. He put both on the pig who was sitting in the front seat beside him, and when he finally stopped, the policeman gave him a speeding ticket but let him and his “wife” go. Uncle Lonnie finished his story by saying the policeman leaned in close and said, “Unc, I don’t mean no harm, but that is one ugly woman.” Uncle Lonnie said the Black man nodded, “Yes, sir. She shore is. But she’s gonna make a fine dinner tonight!”
I LOVED those stories. Stories that made you laugh and cry. Stories where Black people ALWAYS triumphed over the white protagonist. Often times, my daddy, uncles and friends struggled in a society that saw them as less-than. When they told these "tall tails" they got to be the victor. I have forgotten most of their stories, but I haven't forgotten how those stories made me feel proud. Proud of them, proud of the people in the story, and pride in being a little Black girl from the south. The Dick and Jane books never gave me that sense of pride, but these Black storytellers sure did.
Another storyteller who I loved to hear talk was Mr. J.W. Warren. Mr. J.W. was a blues singer. He could take his guitar and make that thing SING! Mr. J.W. played with all of the greats – Muddy Waters, B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, and Big Mama Thornton, to name a few, and he had a story about all of them. Two stories he loved to tell I didn’t believe until years later.
The first story he loved telling was he had written a song and B.B. King recorded it and didn’t pay him. I remember everyone teasing him and laughing. But, when I was a junior in college at Troy University, I stopped by Daddy’s house where Daddy and all of his friends were hanging out together. Mr. J.W. drove up and jumped out of his car with so much excitement. He came over to me and handed me an envelope. “Read this to these fools, little girl. You the only one out here with some college sense.” So, I took the envelope and inside was a letter and a check from B.B. King Licensing. It said Mr. J.W. was being paid in full for the song he had written and King had recorded. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Mr. J.W. would bring that up to daddy any time he thought he was being teased too much. The other story Mr. J.W. liked to tell was about him and Big Mama Thornton. He said they dated and because he treated her so bad, she went on and wrote “Hound Dog.” According to Mr. J.W., Big Mama Thornton and Elvis owed him some back pay. “There never would have been that song if I hadn’t been out cattin’ the way I was,” he would say with a laugh that would fill the yard.
Long after those incredible men died, I went to school for a degree in creative writing. I learned a lot in the Spalding University low residency in creative writing program, but if I am to be honest, my real education in storytelling occurred in the little country town of Ariton, Alabama underneath those pecan trees.