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Just as I Am: A Memoir / : (by Cicely Tyson, Michelle Burford, 2021) -

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Just as I Am: A Memoir /   :  (by Cicely Tyson, Michelle Burford, 2021) -

Just as I Am: A Memoir / : (by Cicely Tyson, Michelle Burford, 2021) -

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Just as I Am: A Memoir / : (by Cicely Tyson, Michelle Burford, 2021) -
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2021
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Cicely Tyson, Michelle Burford
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Cicely Tyson, Viola Davis, Robin Miles
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upper-intermediate
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16:09:13
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64 kbps
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mp3, pdf, doc

Just as I Am: A Memoir / : :

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: Just as I Am: A Memoir

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Foreword A Mighty Seed by Viola Davis I WAS introduced to Ms. Tyson on a television set in my familys dilapidated apartment in Central Falls, Rhode Island. Oddly, it was a television that rested upon another broken one, a set with aluminum foil on its antennae for better reception. My sisters Deloris and Dianne sat beside me, cross-legged in front of the screen, and together we witnessed magican image that changed my life at the tender age of seven. There was Ms. Tyson in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, a made-for-TV movie based on the novel by Ernest J. Gaines. In the 1974 film, 110-year-old Jane Pittman reflects on her life, from her enslavement in her early twenties to the day nearly a century later when she defies Jim Crow by sipping from a whites-only water fountain. I couldnt believe the same actress had played both the young woman and the elder one, but Deloris insisted she had. I stared at my sister, and then back at the screen, marveling at Ms. Tysons mastery of her craft, the brilliance with which she had transformed herself. It planted in me a seed that immediately took root. She was the manifestation of excellence and artistry, a dark-skinned, thick-lipped woman who truly mirrored me. I can pinpoint the exact moment when my life opened up, and it was there, in front of that set, that mine did. With one mesmerizing performance, with one gorgeously poignant rendering of her character, Ms. Tyson gave me permission to dream. I was no stranger to the wonder of dreams. For most of my life, dreams were all my siblings and I had. I was born in 1965, in a one-room sharecroppers shack on a plantation in South Carolina. My father was illiterate, and my mother had only an eighth-grade education. Desperate to support my siblings and me, my parents moved us north. My father was an equestrian who groomed horses and prepared them for racing, and in Rhode Island he found work. We settled in Central Falls, a mill town a single square mile in size. Though my father did all he could to piece together a living for us, we still lived in abject poverty, on societys lowest rung. Our deprivation far exceeded the financial. We were the only Black family in a town of white Irish Catholics, a family with no sense of ourselves, other than as invisible. There was no foundation of self-love or worth for us, no pathway to any kind of achievement. We settled for a time at 128 Washington Streetor 128, as my sisters and I referred to it. That condemned building represented exactly how the world felt about us. It was the demon that sat on my chest during those years, the devil that still hangs over me as a painful memory of the trauma. Our third-floor, rat-infested apartment lacked heat, plumbing, and hot water because the pipes froze during the harsh New England winters. There was a single room with electricity, and from that room, a long cord stretched to connect us to the outside world through that foiled-antennae television. It was on that screen, in 128, that Ms. Tyson flickered into my world. In Ms. Tyson I saw a dark-skinned woman with the same fro as my mother, an artist who carried herself with pride and poise. I was more than entertained by the story of Jane Pittmans life. I was mesmerized by Ms. Tysons ability to transport me from my world to hers, to a place where I didnt have to wade through garbage bins in search of food covered in maggots, a place where the demon on my chest disappeared for a time. Even as a child, I knew I wanted more than 128, wanted more than the rat-infested existence we endured. Watching Jane Pittman, I saw my ticket out of poverty and shame. Ms. Tyson, the daughter of immigrants, had herself risen out of poverty and onto the global stage. In her journey, I glimpsed possibilities for my own. For hours in our bedroom, my sisters and I would try to imitate everything about Ms. Tyson: her piercing gaze, those eyes brimming with memory and emotion, the way she held her jaw, how she so fully embodied her characters. By the time I was fourteen, I was so intent on following in her path that I took a bus to an acting class two hours away, since my family didnt have a car. There I was, a complete geek in my gaucho pants and my purple mascara, doing all I could to imbue my characters with the empathy Ms. Tyson brought to her portrayals. I wanted to be exceptional at my craft. And more than anything, I wanted to be like her. Before I knew of her, Ms. Tyson had already made a name for herself as an accomplished actor, engraving our narratives into the storybook of the world. For six decades, Ms. Tyson has shown us who we are: vulnerable, magnificent, pain-ridden, and beautifully human. Time and time again, she has put our humanity on display, never compromising her dignity while creating a new chapter in Black history. In 1963 during the filming of the series East Side/West Side, she arrived on set rocking her fro, becoming the first Black woman to wear her natural hair on TV. Yet terms like trailblazer and pioneer dont fully capture what she means to so many of us who looked up to her as the epitome of Black strength. Ms. Tyson is the Master Truth Tellera warrior with fierce courage and supreme artistry, her instrument precisely tuned to tell stories that capture our being. Over the years, Ive held close Ms. Tysons brave spirit as Ive admired her work from afar. Then, in 2011 on the set of The Help, I finally met my muse. There before me on a muggy afternoon in Mississippi stood the divine giver of gifts, the legend who had inspired me to act. I embraced her, tears spilling from my eyes as I stammered through a flurry of thank-yous, none of them conveying the depth of my gratitude. We had no scenes together in the movie, and I wasnt on set when Ms. Tyson filmed her segments as Constantine. But the director, Tate Taylor, recalled the dedication she brought to her work. She showed up on set in character and remained that way, insisting that she be called Constantine at all times. Thats just who Ms. Tyson is: excellence personified. Toward the end of 2014, I asked my role model to play Ophelia, the mother of my character, Annalise, on the ABC series How to Get Away with Murder. In life, Ms. Tyson had nurtured and mentored me. On the set, she would do the same, though in a way that initially caught me off guard. Shed just turned ninety years old then, and she strode in already steeped in the tense history between mother and daughter. As she entered, I stood there with an enormous smile on my face and my arms outstretched to hug her. She marched right past me, reprimanding me with her stern expression, a mother putting a child in her place. She knew that if shed broken the moment by stepping out of character, her portrayal wouldnt be the same. Faced with that wall, I laughed and thought, Well maybe I need to get working. During our scenes in Murder, I experienced her ingenuity up close. With just her demeanorwith those lucid and revealing eyes, with traces of pain on her browMs. Tyson often took viewers someplace you can go only if youve been there. That is because she does not simply act. She bares every corner of her soul. And in so doing, she accomplishes what all great art does: she makes us feel less alone. A few years later when Ms. Tyson heard Id been nominated for an Academy Award for Fences, she called to congratulate me. I clutched the phone, giddy like the seven-year-old Id been watching her play Jane Pittman all those winters ago. I know the road youre on, she told me. By that, she meant she understood the world that a dark-skinned actress not seen as conventionally beautiful was navigating. She knew the barriers in the industry, all the ways, explicit and covert, that someone with my nose and my lips and my hair is told she isnt enough. She was aware of how we Black women are expected to water down our complexity, how our pathology is seldom allowed exposure within the narratives written for us. She had confronted those obstacles. At the end of our call, she urged me to relish the path ahead, the accolades, all of it. Just as shed once granted me permission to dream, she now nudged me to delight in the bounty. Here she was, offering me another gem, this time as a wise ally, lifting her lantern to light my way. This book is Ms. Tysons abundant treasure to each of us: her life, in her words, just as she is. She shares truths usually whispered between sisters and close friends in the dim light of a back bedroom, those candid declarations not often spoken aloud. And she tells her story the way only a Black woman can: in all of its dazzling authenticity, heels off and voice undulating, shifting between anguish and exuberance. The art of acting is the art of exposing, an emotional unveiling before others. Ms. Tyson is as revelatory on these pages as she has been on the stage. She is not just the performer who has so deftly captured the breadth of the human experience, with all of its unslicked edges. She is Cicely the woman, someone who has grappled with the fears and fragilities many of us carry. And during a season when so much in our culture is changing so quickly, she has now blessed us with a timeless jewel: her written legacy. And what a heritage it isone not gauged by her number of extraordinary roles, but by the countless lives, like my own, that she has lifted. Youll never see a U-Haul behind a hearse, Denzel Washington often said as we worked together on Fences. I dont care how much money you have or what level of notoriety youve achieved, you cant take any of it with you. There is a cap on earthly success, a ceiling on the amount of joy that possessions and awards can bring before disillusionment sets in. Our appearance, our prosperity, the applause: all of it is so fleeting. But a life of true significance has unlimited impact. It is measured in how well weve loved those around us, how much weve given away, how many seeds weve sown along our path. During her ninety-six years, Ms. Tyson has discovered the potent elixir: she has lived a life that is bigger than she is, an existence grounded in purpose and flourishing in service to others. That is her defining masterpiece. That is her enduring gift to us all. Introduction This Life I NEVER intended to write an autobiography. Decades ago, after I presented an award to Barbara Jordanthe trailblazing civil rights activist and the first African American elected to the Texas SenateI asked her, When are you going to write your book? A smile spread across Barbaras face. When I have something to say, she told me. In that moment, I decided that if a woman as accomplished as Barbara could get away with such a reply, so could I. Years later, a gentleman from The Washington Post interviewed me. When are you going to do your book? he asked. And just as Id been doing for quite some time by then, I borrowed Barbaras response. When I have something to say, I told him. Well, Ive been talking to you for three hours, he said, chuckling, and it sounds to me like youve got plenty to say. I nodded and gave him the same wry grin Barbara had once given me, with no plan of ever committing my story to the page. Back then I did not see an autobiography as personal. I thought of it as a written record of a public journeyfor me, an account of my stage and film roles, the parts of my experience in view of the world. It would be my story through the lens of Miss Jane Pittman, through Rebecca in Sounder and Binta in Roots. To be sure, there are traces of who I am in every woman I have portrayed. In the tenacity of Harriet Tubman and the quiet strength of Coretta Scott King, I can be glimpsed. In the trembling fingers of Constantine in The Help and in the determination of Mrs. Carrie Watts in The Trip to Bountiful, my thumbprint is recognizable. Every one of these characters has left me with an emotional, spiritual, and psychological inheritance I will forever carry with me. But while each, in some way, reflected me, none could reveal who I am in my entirety. A few years ago, my manager, Larry Thompson, started in on me again about writing a memoir. Youve got to do a book, he said one afternoon. Yeah, you and the world think that, I told him, shaking my head. No, Im serious, he persisted. Its time. I uttered the same refrain Id been repeating to him for months: The lights and the trimmings of my career, the accoladesas far as I was concerned, none of it needed to be recounted. For me, the greatest gratification has come in refining my craft, not in gazing upon its merits. He stared at me for a long moment. Youre talking about a Christmas tree, he finally said. What? I asked. Everybody thinks they know who Cicely Tyson is, he explained. But what they see are the ornaments on the branches, the decorations. They know nothing about the roots. That conversation is what planted the seed for Just as I Am. Larrys observation captured, for the first time, what I have felt for so many years. The glitter, the ribbons, the garnishas wonderful as those things are, I have little desire to reflect on them solely. What I am far more interested in is how my tree, my story, first sprang into existence. How its roots, stretching far beneath the soil, have nourished and anchored me. How each tree ring whispers memories sometimes too troubling for me to recall. How its bark and rugged exterior have both guarded and grounded me. Every one of my experiences on the public stage has been rooted in my upbringing, those years spent at my mothers elbow and on my fathers knee. That foundation, that rich earth, has given birth to who I am. Even now, in the winter of my life, I am just beginning to truly understand my identity. Every holiday season in the heart of New Yorks Rockefeller Center, a spruce stands, proud and glistening, in a magnificent exhibition. And yet its display is but a snapshot of that trees history, one brief and final episode in its lifespan. The thousands of lights adorning its branches disclose nothing about its path, about its nurturing and growth over decades. Only when that tree is stripped of its embellishments does it bare its scars and show its true nature. Just as I Am is my truth. It is me, plain and unvarnished, with the glitter and garland set aside. In these pages, I am indeed Cicely, the actress who has been blessed to grace the stage for six decades. Yet I am also the church girl who once rarely spoke a word. I am the teenager who sought solace in the verses of the old hymn for which this book is named. I am a daughter and a mother, a sister and a friend. I am an observer of human nature and the dreamer of audacious dreams. I am a woman who has hurt as immeasurably as I have loved, a child of God divinely guided by his hand. And here in my ninth decade, I am a woman who, at long last, has something meaningful to say. I stand amazed at this tree, this life. I stare up in awe at its branches, raising up toward heaven. I wonder about its origins, how a seed so minuscule could grow into a structure so vast and resilient. Im still examining its genesis. To examine, to question, to discover and evolvethat is what it means to be alive. The day we cease to explore is the day we begin to wilt. I share my testimony in these pages not because I have reached any lasting conclusions, but because I have so much to understand. I am as inquisitive about life now as I was as a child. My story will never be finished, nor should it be. For as long as God grants me breath, I will be livingand writingmy next chapter. Part One Planted Like a tree planted by the water, I shall not be moved. NEGRO SPIRITUAL 1 The Vow I KNOW instantly whether I should take a role. If my skin tingles as I read the script, then it is absolutely something I must do. But if my stomach churns, I do not touch the project, because if I did, Id end up on a psychiatrists couch. Either my spirit can take the story or it cannot, and my senses have never misled me. That is how I knew, with unequivocal assurance, that I was meant to act in Sounder, the 1972 film about a loving familys struggle during the Depression. What I didnt know is how Sounders tide would carry me toward a profound purposeone spawned by comments from strangers. The role offered to me in the film wasnt the one I wouldve chosen. We want you to play the schoolteacher, the producers said to me as they handed me the script. Yet as I read the story, I felt certain I was meant to portray the mother, Rebecca, the wife of Nathan. Nathan was his familys backbone, Rebecca its robust and steady heartbeat. In that moms devotionin the tender way she cared for their three children even as she rested her palm in the small of her husbands backI recognized my own mother. But youre too young, too pretty, too sexy to play the mom, I was told. I was forty-seven then, though for years at the suggestion of my first director, Warren Coleman, Id been claiming to be a full decade younger, with taut cocoa skin clinging to my secret. What does my appearance have to do with acting? I retorted, amused that I, a schoolgirl once called a skinny little nappy-head, was now being ruled out as too attractive. As an artist, I should be able to portray anyone. But the producers wouldnt hear of it. Three months went by and the team was still searching for an actress to play Rebecca. Meanwhile, feeling no less convinced that I was destined for the role, I had Rebeccas lines down, do you hear me? After another month had passed, I received a call from Bill Haber, my agent at the time. Well, he said, exhaling into the receiver, you got the role of the mother. I didnt say a word. Did you hear me? he pressed. Yes, I heard you, I answered calmly. So when do we begin? But arent you excited? he asked. About what? I said. I knew all the time that the role was mine. I was just waiting for them to discover it. An actress the producers had gone after had wanted more money than they were willing to pay, and so shed passed on the film. I couldve saved them the trouble of their negotiation because the role was never for her. The money wasnt much, Haber explained; Id earn around $6,000a pittance even in those days. Yet I wouldve taken the role for half of that. Its how convinced I was that Rebecca was my character. When filming began in Baton Rouge in spring 1971, the nation had teetered off balance. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was gone, his life sliced short three years earlier by a bullet thundering across a hotel balcony. On that fateful evening in Memphis, the Civil Rights Movement had lost not only its leader but also its way, wandering in search of a new path forward. It was in this America, one grieving and limping from a deep racial reckoning, that Blaxploitation cinema found a fertile audience. In a spate of films during the early 1970s depicting urban life, the Black man, muted over centuries by bigotrys cruel muzzle, at last got to play the hero in his own story line. But this newfound creative freedom came at a cost. In my mind, these films gave rise to a misery more harrowing than the realities they portrayed. The Black woman was often cast in a powerless supporting role, or as a hypersexual female eager to fall into bed. Ghetto life and vulgarity were glorified. Even still, theatergoers seemed ravenous for this movie genre, and directors, driven by profits, rushed to satiate that appetite. During this period, a producer had the gall to say to me, Niggers want sex and violence, and we plan to give them both. He did not flinch as he spoke. Given the box-office success of films such as Sweet Sweetbacks Baadasssss Song, making a movie about a tight-knit Black family of Louisiana sharecroppers took some nerve. Marty Ritt, a gem of a director, clearly had plenty of it. With characteristic zeal, he forged ahead with filming Sounder, which was based on an award-winning childrens novel and adapted for the screen by Lonne Elder. I did not know how the movie would ultimately resonate, nor was that my chief concern. I was focused on emptying my soul into Rebecca, my first lead role in a major film. Sharing the stage with me was Paul Winfield, who played Nathan, and Kevin Hooks, who portrayed David, the eldest of our children and the son who narrates the story. Paul, whod already become known for his star turn in the 1968 NBC sitcom Julia with my beloved friend Diahann Carroll, was to be Sounders headliner. I, then in the infancy of my film career, wasnt slated to even have my name listed on the movies poster. Circumstances would later have something to say about that. Before Sounders release, I traveled across the country on a promotional tour with some of the other cast members. From San Francisco to Boston, Indianapolis to Richmond, reporters whod previewed the film gathered to interview me about the production. It was during my stop in Philadelphia that the earth quaked. Among the group of reporters stood a Caucasian gentleman, auburn-haired and around age thirty. He cleared his throat, lifted the microphone to his lips, and locked his gaze on me. I have a confession to make, he said slowly, as if calculating the impact of what he would reveal. I never thought of myself as being the least bit prejudiced, he said. But as I watched the film, I just could not believe that the son was calling his father Daddy. That is what my son calls me. Silence blanketed the room. Well, child, Ill tell you: my mouth fell open like a broken pocketbook. As the mans words shuddered through me, I forced a smile. But all the while I was thinking, My Lord, how appalling. This man clearly knew nothing about our shared humanity. He had no understanding of Gods multihued creation, of his place, next to yours and mine, in that colorful family mosaic. From his perspective, there had to be something radically wrong with a Black child calling his father Daddy, a term he thought reserved for his own kind. How could Nathan, once declared three-fifths human by our Constitution, be worthy of such endearment? How could a fraction of a man stand forehead to forehead with him? That would put Nathan on par with all those born into the privilege of whiteness, as he had been. I dont know what stunned me more: the fact that the man believed what he did, or that he had the audacity to say it aloud. After a lengthy pause, I regained my composure and my tongue. I have to congratulate you, sir, I said, my tone tinged with sarcasm. It takes a lot of courage to stand up here, in the midst of your peers, and admit you never thought you were prejudiced until you saw the film. Thank you. I was so disturbed by what Id heard that, in that moment, this was the only response I could muster. I left that press conference saying to myself, Maybe its just this one. Surely, amid the shrill call for equality sounded during those years, there couldnt be many who shared this mans view. That is how I attempted to console myself. Yet as I continued touring the country, I became acquainted with an America Id seldom encountered up to then. At the time, I considered myself fairly knowledgeable about this nation I have always called home. Id grown up in New York and lived either there or in Los Angeles, two culturally progressive cities. But outside of that bubble, in the many towns and communities I regularly flew over, the seed of Dr. Kings dream might have been sown, but it obviously had not germinated. During a stop in the Midwest, another reporters comment reinforced that notion. I didnt know that Black men and women had the kind of loving relationship that we see between Nathan and Rebecca, a young woman stated. Their connection didnt seem believable to me. I was so taken aback by her assessment that I did not respond. So seldom had Black families been portrayed nurturing one another on-screen that, when art indeed imitated life, the truth of that narrative was met with deep skepticism. Embedded in this womans observation was an assumption that lives at the center of all bias: You are not like me. You are intrinsically different. And that difference deems you inferior. I recognized these comments for what they were: pure ignorance. Anger wouldve been the justified response, and for a time in private, I was certainly apoplectic. But as life has taught me more than once, resentment corrodes the veins of the person who carries it. These reporters beliefs, however offensive they may have been to me, were not a bitterness to be nursed; they were a lesson to be heeded. So rather than recoiling in exasperation at the ideas expressed, I leaned in and listened intently at every remaining tour stop. Much of what I heard mimicked what those two reporters had dared voice. And the more aware I became of the bigotry that existed against Black people, what mightve been reason to seethe became, for me, a reason to pursue my craft with new purpose. I returned home from the road saying to myself, Sister, youve got some educating to do. It was at this juncture that I made a conscious decision: I would use my profession as my platforma stage from which to make my voice heard by carefully choosing my projects and portrayals. I could not afford the luxury of simply being an actress. Yes, I was already selecting only those roles that gave me goose pimples, just as Rebecca in Sounder had. But as an artist with the privilege of the spotlight, I felt an enormous responsibility to use that forum as a force for good, as a place from which to display the full spectrum of our humanity. My art had to both mirror the times and propel them forward. I was determined to do all I could to alter the narrative about Black peopleto change the way Black women in particular were perceived, by reflecting our dignity. When I made the choice to pursue acting, the last thing in the world I intended to be was an actress for the cause. Like most artists, I expected to continually hone my craft by playing all types of roles, with little consideration for how those portrayals might impact the cultural dialogue. But the racial climate called for something more of me, and while traveling this great land, I resolved to answer in the one way I knew how. Never once, during the billowing smoke of the Civil Rights Movement, would I be spotted at a Woolworth lunch counter, braving a sit-in while hate-mongers hurled spit and spite. Never would I parade up and down the boulevards of Selma or Montgomery, a picket sign thrust high alongside my shouts. I admire the valiant freedom fighters who took to the streets, but it wasnt in my makeup to demonstrate in these ways. Nonetheless, I was set on speaking in the only place I felt courageous enough to do soon the stage. I protested using not my own words, but those of the characters I inhabited. Fifty years after I made a silent pact with myself to play women whose legacies uplift us, that vow still guides me. This life is something. When youve lived as long as I have, others always seem to be asking how you are. Im herestill, Im fond of responding. God must have more work for me to do that I havent yet done. Over nearly a century, Ive witnessed the times shifting even as Ive watched them come swinging back around, full circle, to the moment we are standing in today. There is more of this glorious pilgrimage in my rearview mirror than there is up ahead. When I think now on the promise I made all those seasons ago, I recognize it as a defining moment, one from which scores of others would flow. And what preceded that pivot was a miracle that confounds me: that a reticent girl, born in the slums and bathed in the mighty timbre of a church organ, ever stumbled into such a grand arena. 2 String Bean MY MOTHER strolls along the sidewalk, pushing me, six months old, in a carriage. The South Bronx is just yawning awake, its wide boulevards not yet teeming with immigrant families scrambling toward their trains. Mom has risen early for some solitude before the days responsibilities intrude. A Jewish woman, with short black curls framing her kind face, approaches. My mothers instinct is not to flee. It is 1925, an era in which neighbors are still more trusted than feared. The lady leans under the large hood of the carriage and studies my squinty face and bald head. Take care of that child, she whispers. Mommy scans the womans eyes in search of what she means. She has a sixth sense, she continues. Shes going to make you very proud one dayand shes going to take care of you in your old age. The lady smiles and nods and then disappears down the sidewalk as my mother stares after her. The two had never spotted each other amid the factories and alleyways of the neighborhood. They will never again cross paths. Yet on this morning, during the daybreak of my life, providence sweeps them together for a singular exchange. And there I lay, swaddled and slumbering, as oblivious to the roar of passing locomotives as I am to the prophecy of a stranger. * * * My parents grew up together in Nevis, an island cradled between the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea in the British West Indies. My mother, Fredericka Theodosia Huggins, was the only child of Mary Jane Sargent, a seamstress, and Charles Huggins, a fisherman who drowned when his boat capsized during a storm. Mary Jane and Charles were never married. My father, William Augustine Tyson, was one of eight children, or at least the eight he knew about. His dad, John Edward Tyson, the overseer of a wealthy familys estate, was said to have fathered twenty-four children. Eight of them were with my dads mother, Caroline Carol Matilda Wilkes Tyson. Carolor Kyar, as my mother mispronounced her name, along with nearly every other word she spoke in her thick Caribbean accentwas a wayfarer by nature, a spirit unable to tolerate stillness. Whenever Carol felt good and ready, shed leave the house for weeks, with no indication of when shed return. In would step Mary Jane, a dear friend of Carol and Johns. My maternal grandmother had a heart more wide open than her embrace. Shed sweep those Tyson children into her long arms, caring for each with the same gentleness as she showed her own daughter. It was squeezed around her supper table, in a shanty the size of a thimble, that my mom and dad became acquainted. One evening as Mary Jane bowed her head, the sound of grace rising to mix with the smell of goat stew, my father winked clandestinely at my mother. He was just twelve years old then, already gregarious and rehearsing his mannish charms. My mother, one month his senior and more timid than Id one day be, blushed and looked away. Nevis is tiny, even when it puffs out its chest and stands tall alongside its big sister, St. Kitts. The entire island is about thirty-five square miles; you can drive its full length, from Newcastle in the north to Saddle Hill near its bottom edge, in less than a half-hour. The islands capital, Charlestown, on the western coast, was the birthplace of Alexander Hamilton. My parents homes were on opposite ends of Nevis. Mom and her mother shared their two-room hovel on the northwest shore, in the village of Westbury in St. Thomas parish. My father was born in that same parish, but his father, then a laborer desperate to lift his low wages, moved the family from one village to the next. When my dad and his siblings werent huddled around Mary Janes table in Westbury, they mostly lived in the southern village of Gingerland, so named for the plenteous crops of the spice once grown there. My parents villages sat miles apart, but there was no distance at all between the values that governed each. My mother and father grew up in the Episcopal Church, under the watchful gaze and doting palm of the faithful. Rearing was done in the collective. With a side eye and an unsparing rod, a priest or parishioner could train up a child, be that youngster his own or anothers. It was in this kind of spiritual community, one encircled by the guardrails of love and discipline, that my parents heels were grounded. It is also where, on a Sunday when my mother was thirteen, her path in life was set. On that morning, the congregation gathered for my mothers confirmation. In keeping with their tradition, every saint was dressed, head to toe, in ivory. After my mom received the Holy Sacrament, she and the other youth stood near an enormous window in the sanctuary. Through the opening flew a white dove, fully extending its wings before landing right onto my mothers head. Any other child would have shrieked and bolted, but not my mom. Even then, she was as steady as she was reticent. She just stared ahead as if such an unusual occurrence had been expected. This child should not stay here, the pastor declared to the congregants. She should go to America. Years earlier, my mothers Aunt Miriam had moved from Nevis to the nation of dreamers. The dove, said the minister, was appointing Fredericka as the next in the family to follow. Soon after, Mary Jane wrote to Miriam about her special niece, this chosen child, and asked that she prepare the way for her. A decade later, once her papers were in order, she indeed made the journey. My father had arrived a year before her. As my father grew through adolescence, he became more sweet on Fredericka. Her introversion was a perfect balance for his charisma. Love, invisible but palpable, lingered between them. And yet the relationships strongest connective tissue was their shared sense of faith and family. My mom never told me how my dad proposed to her. I know only that, by the time my father set out for the United States, hed made clear his intention to one day make Fredericka his bride. Years into their union, as my dad carried on during one of his raving fits, he told my mother hed asked her to be his wife because Mary Jane had always been so good to him. Choosing her, he said, was his way of reciprocating that grace. My fathers lips had been loosened that evening by whatever strife had prompted his rage. Still, his revelation bore a kernel of truth. Mary Janes profound kindness had been part of what initially knit them together. Their care for each other and common values, and later, an abiding affection for their children, tightened the knot. My father arrived at Ellis Island in the summer of 1919just before his twenty-second birthday. The First World Wars dust was still settling, and Jim Crows cloud hung over the land. Woodrow Wilson was president. In 1918, the year before my dad sailed ashore on the S.S. Korona, Wilson screened, in the halls of the White House, The Birth of a Nationa silent motion picture exalting Klansmen as saviors and depicting Black people as apelike, menacing degenerates. That is the America my dad entered, one with a legacy of assault on the heroes who tilled its soil. But my father and millions of others came here nonetheless, compelled by a force more powerful than hate: a hunger for opportunity. In his front vest pocket, my father held close the same resolve to better himself that still lures the most strident to our shores. The throngs of West Indians flocking to New York in those years typically moved into either Hells Kitchen or the Bronx. But my father settled first in Brooklyn, with my mothers Aunt Miriam (and her husband, Uncle Patrick), whom hed met in Nevis. He divided his time between there and East Orange, New Jersey, in the home of his eldest brother, George, whod transitioned to the United States before he did. My uncle and his family eventually moved from East Orange to nearby Montclair. My dad had honed a talent for carpentry in Nevis and brought the skill with him. In addition to handcrafting wood pieces, bureaus, and bed frames that drew squeals of delight from his patrons, he operated a fruit and vegetable pushcart. On the streets of Hells Kitchen, as well as in Uptown Manhattan on the East Sideanother neighborhood with a strong West Indian presencehe set up his cart, hawking everything from green plantains to fresh ginger for those yearning for a taste of home. He and a good friend, Mr. Benjamin Taylor, jointly operated the business. As if those two jobs werent enough to fill my dads workdays, he enlisted in the 369th Infantry Regiment, the first all-Black National Guard unit, famously known as the Harlem Hellfighters. Dad trained at Camp Whitman in New York but never served overseas. The men in his unit who did fight in the First World War were among this countrys most gallant and well-decorated. After white American soldiers refused to perform combat duties alongside Blacks, the US Army assigned the Hellfighters to the French Army. The men spent 191 days in the frontline trenchesmore combat time there than any other American unit. During their triumph in staving off the Germans, the troop also suffered the most losses, with fifteen hundred casualties. Despite their extraordinary valor and sacrifice, they returned home to the democracy my dad was navigating: a woefully prejudiced society that, at every turn, denied Black people equal citizenship. My father and mother corresponded across the Atlantic, expressing, in hastily rendered cursive and without the luxury of a telephone, their longing to reunite. In 1920, the year my parents were both twenty-three, my mother at last joined my father in New York. On the afternoon she boarded the Macedonia, I can only imagine the brew of excitement and uncertainty she felt about leaving the world she knew and entering another, one unfamiliar to her. It was the last time shed ever see her mother in this life, and as Mom tearfully waved goodbye from the ships deck, her spirit surely sensed that finality. Mom moved into Aunt Miriam and Uncle Patricks brownstone. As she and my father resumed their courtship, Dad left Miriams place. Living together before marriage, or shacking up as it was known, was frowned upon in their church community. So Dad stayed between the homes of his brother, George, and his favorite sister, Zora, who had settled in the Bronx neighborhood of Mount Vernon. My mom began work as a sleep-in nanny, taking care of a little white boy during the week and returning home to her aunt and uncles place on the weekends. She and my father, elated to be near one another, picked up where theyd left off. They also squirreled away every nickel they could in preparation for an eventual wedding. Not long after Moms arrival in the United States, she and my father became formally engaged. In a cultural tradition known as the Calling of the Band, my parents forthcoming nuptials were announced, three separate times, in Moms home church in Nevisin the same sanctuary where the dove had descended on her. William Augustine Tyson and Fredericka Theodosia Huggins will be married on September 25, 1921, the reverend proclaimed. Mom, upon receiving news of the announcement in a letter from her mother, beamed as she read and reread the words. At the altar of St. Cyprians Episcopal Church in Hells Kitchen, my parents spoke their promisesvows that circumstances would test. My parents began their married life together in a Bronx tenement before later relocating to Manhattans East Side. The year after they wed, they welcomed my brother, Melrose, a name my father had loved since the day he spotted it on a street sign in the Bronx. Six days before Christmas in 1924, I arrived with my thumb poked in my mouth and nary a strand of hair. A year and a half later, my sister, Emily, came along to complete our family, crossing the T on the Tyson five. * * * I was born scrawny and with a heart murmur, twin liabilities in West Indian culture. When the doctors discovered the murmur, they told my mother and father that I probably wouldnt make it to three months old. My parents, who knew God and thus knew better, set out to prove medicine wrong. They got right to work on restoring me to good health and fattening me up, which, as they saw it, were one and the same. Mom and Dad hovered over me constantly. If I whimpered in the slightest or my eyes fluttered awake, my mother pulled me close to her bosom and nursed me as she stroked my head. After wed moved from the Bronx to the East Side, Daddy would put me in my stroller early in the mornings and walk me over to Central Park. This child needs some fresh air in her lungs, hed say on his way out the door. After shed weaned me, Mom kept on trying to put weight on me. Though my mother was naturally petite like me during her twenties, she wasnt about to have it on her parenting record that shed lost a child to malnourishment. Shed mash up yams and shovel them in my mouth. Id spit them out. As I got older, shed push a bowl of oatmeal toward me at our breakfast table. Id hardly even look at it. Everything about oatmeal disgusted me then: its lumpy texture, its drab color, the way it slid off the spoon. And if I didnt like what I saw, no way was I sticking it in my mouth. The fact that I love oatmeal now is a source of amazement to me, because for most of my early childhood, I was too enamored of my thumb to be bothered with oats or much else. My murmur ultimately disappeared, but I was still skin and bones. So Mom trotted me all around town, to this physician and that one, seeking assurance that I was healthy. Will you please leave this child alone? a doctor finally told her. Shes not fat and shes never going to be. Mom was embarrassed. Not because shed smothered me half to death, but because her suffocating had become noticeable enough to draw rebuke. My mother had wanted to name me Miriam, after the aunt she treasured. By the time I was born, Aunt Miriam had passed away in a house fire, her body consumed by flames but her presence never more strong. My dad, though he also cherished Miriam, insisted on another name. I want my first daughter to be called Cicely, he said. An adorable girl who lived next door to them in the Bronx had the name, and the first time he heard it, hed decided that hed one day bestow it upon his daughter. That is the barefaced story he told my mother. Years later when I was grown, the truth would come spilling forth. On the day I arrived home from the hospital, my father said to Melrose, This is your sister. From then on, my brother called me Sister, or Sis for short. The rest of the family followed his lead, even as they added to my list of nicknames. My mother often referred to me as Father Face, because Id inherited my dads cheekbones. My father had two names for me: String Bean and Heart String. The former was because I was so skinny; the latter was because I was his first girl and therefore his most beloved. I could feel his affection for me. When I was a toddler, hed scoot to the edge of the sofa, somehow balance me on his left knee while resting his guitar on his right thigh, and then belt out his favorite spiritual, Im gonna lay down my burdens . . . down by the riverside . . . and study war no more! As he sang and strummed, hed motion for Melrose, who sat cross-legged on the floor with his eyes dancing, to sing along. Up and down I bounced to the sound of Dads booming baritone, his care for me reverberating between each note. Most parents wouldnt dare admit to preferring one child over another, but in our home, that fact was not hidden. My father adored me and Emily. I dont know why, but Daddy just preferred girl children. Melrose, on the other hand, was my mothers heartthrob. No one called my brother by his given name. He abhorred the sound of it and insisted that his friends refer to him as Tyson. Our family mostly still called him Melrose (or Merose, for short), though Mom had her own term of endearment for him. Beau, dont be gone too long, shed say when hed dart out our front door, his pockets bulging with a collection of marbles. Whenever Melrose was sick of being surrounded by two sisters, which was often, hed scamper off to roughhouse with the neighborhood boys. Sometimes he wouldnt return for hours, long after dusk had descended. My mother would go out looking for her dear son, fussing at him the whole time as she dragged his behind up our stairs for an inevitable backhand from Dad. In the streets, Melrose received more attention than my dad often paid to him. A faded family photo captures the spirit of their puzzling dynamic. My smiling father stands tall, dressed sharp as a Rockefeller with his shoulders squared. My brother, conversely, wears a somber expression and high-water pants. Whenever my mother would pass that photo on our living room wall, shed shake her head and murmur, Your father shouldve taken Beau to get a proper suit. Not only did my dad show little interest in grooming his son, he was also very hard on him. If Melrose cut up in class or brought home a less-than-stellar grade, my fathers scolds were louder than his encouragements. I have no doubt that my dad cared for my brother as much as he did my sister and me. He provided for all of us just the same, and in our culture, provision speaks a love language that the tongue may seldom profess. But with me and Emily, my fathers care manifested as an instinct to protect. With Melrose, it showed up as an urge to toughen him up by slicing him down, perhaps as a way to prepare him for a world that villainizes Black men. My brothers heart, soft and golden at its center despite his unflinching exterior, couldnt sustain the reprimands. It was why he so frequently escaped outdoors. Emily was my fathers other crown jewel. Dad borrowed my sisters nickname, Molly, from the Broadway show tune My Blue Heaven. Just Molly and me and baby makes three, Daddy would sing, and were happy in my blue heaven! Emilys given name came courtesy of my fathers cousin. When she heard that my parents third child was to be born on her birthday, she said to my dad, If you name the baby after me, itll be the happiest birthday Ive ever had. Though Mom called me Father Face, I always thought Emily looked more like Dad. My sisters face was a full moon, like his, whereas Mom and I had an almond shape; in my mind then, shape rather than color was the strongest marker of similarity. Over the years, Ive come to recognize both of my parents faces in my own, depending on the character Im portraying. In Sounder, I spot Willie. In How to Get Away with Murder, I notice Fredericka. In The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, I see both. Emily was plump. When we were growing up, everyone always thought she was older than me, in part because her clothes were two sizes bigger than mine, and also because she was more forward and worldly than I was. In school, she gravitated toward classmates who were a year or two ahead of her, tilting her ear to catch any tea they spilled. The same was true when my moms friends would stop by to visit. Shed crane her neck to overhear their grown-folk conversations until Mom urged her out of the room. My mother was often surprised at what tumbled from that girls mouth. So was I. When my sister was still quite young, she heard a rumor that having sex keeps one from having headaches. One afternoon, she said to my mom, Well Im not gonna die from no headaches. Had my mother not been so shocked, she wouldve smacked Emily for that piece of sass, as well as for mentioning a subject never discussed in our religious household. My sister possessed features celebrated in our culture: a full mane of hair, a thick and healthy body, and a gregariousness passed on to her from our father. I had none of those attributes. When I was eight, I caught a glimpse of myself in a mirror on my way out of my cousins house. I stood there for the longest time, studying my reflection. Huh, I thought. Im bowlegged. I wasnt. But because I was so lanky, my stick legs had enough space between them to wedge a football in there. My hair, once I had some, was thin and wouldnt grow very long. Lord knows my mother attempted to both lengthen and groom it as she then saw best. While seated on our couch, Mom would clutch my head between her thighs as she greased my scalp with thick pomade before taking a hot comb to my tresses. I still have burn marks on my earlobes. And then there were my teeth. After arriving in this world with my thumb in my mouth, I kept it there for all of my early childhood. My mother did all she could to cure me of the habit, from wrapping my thumb with gauze to threatening that it would fall off. Her tactics were unsuccessful. As a result, my two front teeth turned to greet one another and have since held their positions. As a child, I was quiet. My mother would take me and Emily with her to an outdoor market, one that stretched up Park Avenue from 111th Street to 116th. After his stop in Hells Kitchen, my father usually parked his cart there. It was the West Indian meeting spot, our public square. The hub pranced to its feet on Saturdays, with women in vividly colored head wraps throwing back their heads in laughter and trading gossip about whatever was happening in church or in the news headlines. Tyson! someone would yell out at my mother across the stands. Girl, where you been? I aint seen you in two weeks! As Mom and her friends cackled and communed, Id stand silently at her side. Oh, shes just so shy! one of the women would say. Mom would glance down at me and smile and then go back to talking, until Emily had to pee so badly shed contort her body into a pretzel. Its not simply that I was shy; mostly, I was observant. I paid close attention to details, allowing the passing world and its peculiarities to seep into my pores. I was curious about all of it. When I did open my mouth to speak, my favorite word was why. Youre too jam noo-zy, my mother would say, never able to pronounce damn or nosy. Mom said I nearly whyd her to death. I now know that Why? is the most important question an artist can ask. But try explaining that to my mother, who threatened to knock the devil out of me when Id pester her with my constant queries. Even as a child, I longed to understand what motivated people to do and say what they did, why the sun opened its lids in the East and shut them in the West, why my battery-operated doll named Dolly, with her blond locks and white paint peeling from her face, was constantly crying. I was so inquisitive that I once took apart a wristwatch, determined to find out what made it tick. I studied everything. When we were out in the streets, Id notice peoples feet. I still do. In fact, my eyes fall first on peoples shoes even before I look up at their faces. Our feet tell our stories. They carry us through this life, moving us from one sorrow and season to the next. Our gait can reveal us to be buoyant or bullish, dispirited or steadfast. I was a deep chestnut brown in a nation that considers the darker sister the less attractive one. Colorism, which cut its teeth on slave plantations, thankfully was not nurtured among the Tysons. I grew up surrounded by cousins whose hues spanned the color spectrum, from lily white (there are a couple of albino children in my extended family) to jet black. My Uncle George and Aunt Beatrice in Montclair had five children who were like siblings to me: George, Helen, Robbie, Beatrice (aka Bette, who was every bit as spirited as Miss Bette Davis herself), and Emily. George was darker than me, just as his father and grandfather were, while Helen was quite fair. My favorite cousin, Robbie (when hed visit us, I wouldnt let anyone else sit next to meoh, how I loved Robbie!), was a shade darker than Helen. In my immediate family, my siblings and I had Dads ebony complexion. Mom was caf? au lait. There was dazzling variety in our tribe and every color was embraced, if only because it wasnt commented upon. Our elders regarded us as Gods most gorgeous creations. I could feel that. And yet when it came to colorism in society at large, I was certainly not immune. No one had to tell me that the fairer your skin and the narrower your nose and lips, the more stunning you were considered. That belief permeated the atmosphere. Caucasian women were upheld as the standard of beauty while our features were denigrated. In print media, Black hair was portrayed as unkempt, a crop of wild, irascible wool that required taming. My mother and other Black women were mostly invisible to whites, and when they did see us, it was through the cracked and muddied lens of racial bias. In their view and in their advertisements, we were mammies and maids, subservient and ignorant, filthy and lazyand yet somehow diligent, clean, and honorable enough to prepare their meals and rear their children. At best, our presence was tolerated or ignored. At worst, we were systematically locked out of homeownership and wealth creation, redlined into ghettos, and lynched. In no regard were we thought worthy of emulation. And not just our appearance was scorned. Our intelligence and very humanity were questioned, considered genetically unfit. The lie of Black inferiority was built right into Americas infrastructure, and to this day, that framework remains stubbornly intact. Given my dark complexion, I spotted no future for myself as a pinup girl. Much as my father in particular affirmed me, I did not feel prettyand my classmates amplified that feeling. On the playground, I heard a looping trio of insults: skinny, nappy-headed, and nigger. The latter truly stung me on the day an Italian boy in my class, my bosom buddy, called me that. He and I lived across the street from one another, so even when we werent in school, we played together. That ended on the morning he came into our first-grade class with a grin on his face and a little poem. Hey, Cicely, he said, you want to hear something funny? I nodded. He cleared his throat and began. God made the niggers, he made them at night, God was in a hurry and forgot to make them white. I stared at the boy, refusing to let the devastation in my heart spill over onto my face, unwilling to give him the satisfaction of knowing his words had pierced me. In the life of every Black child, a moment arrives when he or she becomes wrenchingly aware of how we are perceived. This bruising recognition was among my first. * * * My earliest memory is a street address. On a Saturday in the spring of 1927, my mother took my brother, Emily, and me with her to visit some friends in Hells Kitchen. We stayed out so long that by the time we got home, the sky was dark. We made our way up Third Avenue, crossed over to Second, and then rounded the corner onto our street. Melrose walked next to us as he kicked along a tin can. I, then age two and a half, had one hand clasped in my mothers right palm and the other of course in my mouth. Emily was holding Moms left hand. As we approached the apartment, I stared up. At the top of our building stood a row of numbers, in large gold letters on the glass frontal: 219 East 102nd. The first chapter of my childhood unfolded at that address, the home we shared until I was nine. Our area was called the East Side slums. Nowadays, it is known as East Harlem. Scarcity was and is the neighborhoods salient feature. We were poor, a reality I see most clearly in hindsight. When I was a child, it seemed we had much of what we needed, largely because my parents were so enterprising. Our food stamps and blocks of bright-orange government cheese were supplemented by the steady flow of vegetables my father brought home from his produce cart. We ate well. My mother, a masterful seamstress who created exquisite garments from mere scraps of fabric, dressed me and Emily like little princesses, because in her view, we were. Our community was largely Italian but also racially mixed, filled with parents who, like my own, toiled to lift their childrens prospects. If I had any real inkling of our standing on the bottom rung of the countrys socioeconomic ladder, it came when we walked through our neighborhood. Ladies of the night sashayed down the boulevards at sunset, hoping to capture the glances of weary shift workers crawling home. Broken bottles and cigarette butts littered empty lots. In deep winter, homeless people shivered beneath scaffolds, huddling together around trash barrel fires. Poverty has an odor to it, and in a nation then on the front porch of the Great Depression, it smelled at once of desperation and striving. My parents worked relentlessly. Both rose before sunup, exhaustion sitting heavily on their eyelids. Mommy set out for the elevated train, known as the El. She commuted to the Bronx to work as a domestic for various white families, bathing and feeding their younguns as a way to carve out a life for her own three. In addition to pushing their produce cart all around town, my father and his business partner, Mr. Taylor, also set up shop close to our home, at an open market between 101st and 102nd Streets on Second Avenue. On Moms days off, shed often walk over and help at the cart. Enter the woman we knew as our Nana, a neighbor my mother befriended. In those years when my siblings and I were too small to be at home on our own, Nana took care of us while our parents worked. We never knew our grandparents back in Nevis, and Nana came to feel like one to us. So did a sweet woman by the name of Beal. On the day my mom brought me home from the hospital, Beal, an elder who lived close by, was standing at my parents stoop. When she saw my mother approaching, she reached out her arms and said, Give me that child. That same day, she insisted on becoming my godmother. From then on, there wasnt a weekend that Beal didnt visit us. Sometimes itd be snowing or raining so hard that Mom would look out the window and say, My God, I wonder if Beal is coming down here tonight. At that moment, thered be a knock at our door. Wed open it to see Beal, standing there with joy on her face and her cute mutt, Bella, at her side. Between Beal, Nana, and my parents, the Lord kept four sets of eyes fixed on us. The streets of the East Side slums stood in marked contrast to our home. My mother was spick-and-span about our apartment and required us to keep it immaculate. Near the buildings top floor, we shared a three-room space. Mom and Dad had the bedroom. Up until I was nine, we three children slept together in the living room on a queen-sized rollaway bed, which we folded up and put away every morning. Across from the bed was the kitchen. In its corner sat the claw-foot tub where we bathed and where Mom washed our clothes by hand using a washboard. In another corner sat an icebox with a small mirror attached to its front and a top compartment for storing fifteen cents worth of ice that came wrapped in a canvas bag. When we returned from the market every weekend, wed place our milk, cheese, and other perishables next to the ice. My siblings and I each had a Saturday morning chore. Mine was to sweep and mop the living room, and later, when I was older, to wash the windows. Melrose and Emily kept the kitchen and bedroom pristine. When youre poor, two of the few realities you can control are your own appearance and that of your immediate surroundings. My mother exercised powerful jurisdiction in both domains. Do not go out of this house with no dirty underwear, she stressed constantly. If you fall down sick in the street and your underwear are dirty, nobody is going to touch you. Before bedtime, I removed my underpants, thoroughly washed them in the bathroom sink, and hung them up, using a wooden clothespin, on a line outside our kitchen window. The last thing my mother did every evening was check that line. If she didnt spot my panties out there, shed wake me up. What did you do with your underwear? shed press as I sleepily rubbed my eyes and tried to remember. Id sometimes still have them on, or else Id tucked them someplace random. No matter how late it was, shed pull me from that bed to complete my duty. In our home, cleanliness wasnt just next to godliness; it was the heavenly Father personified. Under the Tyson roof, respect for elders was sacrosanct. Children had not a say, but a mandate: to trust and obey, in the words of the old hymn. Sassing my parents or any member of the community was enough to draw ire and a belt. My backtalk took the form of willfulness. I might have been quiet, but I did plenty of rebutting in my head. I also did exactly the opposite of whatever my mother instructed me to do. Sit down, shed say. Id stand up. Walk, shed command. Id take off running. It was my way of asserting an independence I seldom experienced in the long shadow cast by my mothers lingering presence. She kept close tabs on all of us, but with me, her sickly child, Moms vigilance was devout. I craved the space to move around without her always staring down over me, yet I was never afforded the same freedom as Emily and Melrose. If the two of them went out to play, Mom would find a reason to keep me at her side. Sis, I think youre getting a cold, shed say. Off my siblings would go, and there Id sit, sulking and plotting my getaway. The hovering didnt end as I grew. It continued long after that doctor assured my mother I was fine. There was the time I had the chicken pox and a high fever, and someone told my father to give me a spoonful of sugar with a touch of kerosene in it as a remedy. The minute it touched my tongue, honey, I began bleeding from every orifice in my body: my nostrils, my ears, my mouth. As Mom screamed, Daddy jumped down several flights of stairs to go summon Dr. Gatsby, a crippled physician who lived three blocks from us. I dont know how that doctor even made it up our stairs, given his limp, but he came hobbling through our door moments later to save my life. After that incident, my parents did not let me out of the apartment for a year. Another time, I got an infection under my right arm. Somebody told my mother to take some kind of brown soap, wrap it in a rag, warm it up in hot water, and put it on the bump, which was the size of a lemon. That didnt help. When my father came home and found me in bed screaming, he rushed to the drugstore and returned with a can of black salve and a roll of gauze. He applied both, and the bump burst openyellowish pus oozing out to ease my throbbing discomfort. The fact that Dad had beat Mom to a remedy aggravated her. She accused my father of always trying to outdo her in their joint quest to ensure my health. Try as my mother did to keep me within view, I often found my way outdoors and onto the subway, even when I was as young as eight. When Mom went to help Dad with the business on Saturdays, Id wait fifteen minutes after shed left the house and then Id dash through the door. Id make my way over to 103rd Street and Third Avenue, hop on the train, and ride it all the way up to the last stop in the Bronx. Once off, Id stroll through the neighborhood, peeking into the windows of the beautiful suburban homes, savoring my freedom and alone time. Swearing Emily and Melrose to secrecy, I always managed to get back into our apartment five minutes before Mom returned. My mother never found out about my adventures. Yet she knew that even when she was with me, Id dash off in a heartbeat if she turned her head. As long as youre alive, my mom would often say, Kyar Tyson will never be dead. My fathers mother, Carol, was gone by then, but Mom believed my grandmothers restless spirit had found a home in me. By nature and by choice, I was a wonderer and a wanderer. I still am. Even as a young child, I had a strong sense of autonomy, a feeling that I belonged first and foremost to myself. My mother begged to differ. When I challenged her authority, shed pick up whatever object was near her, be it a wooden clothes hanger or an extension cord, and reassert her reign. In place of a time-out, there was a knockout, a single blow that could send you down onto your knees. Now such treatment would be called abuse, but in my era, it was called excellent child rearing. Mostly, my parents didnt even need to wield a switch in order to restore order. They had only to raise an eyebrow and we understood exactly what that meant. Education was paramount. Each of us had a mission, and for my siblings and me, that was to excel in our studies. My parents viewed education as a passport out of poverty, a corridor toward a prosperity that hadnt been possible for them in Nevis. Its why Melrose caught hell from my father when hed act up in class. I was a good student and loved our public school, which was integrated. Daily attendance liberated me from my mothers hawk-eye and provided a place where my curiosity could roam freely. Still, I rarely spoke in front of the other children. I enjoyed reading on my own, and Id ask questions of my teachers one on one, but no way would I raise my hand to answer a question. Too bashful. My third-grade teacher, Miss Sullivan, somehow spotted a potential in me that I didnt then recognize in myself. Prancing by my desk, shed sing from the famous tune, You oughta be in pictures, youre wonderful to see, you oughta be in pictures, oh what a hit you would be. Im not sure what prompted her prediction. Perhaps Id flashed an impish grin or cast a penetrating stare in her direction, because it couldnt have had anything to do with my speaking. All the time now, I remember her sidling up to me, with her navy suit and brunette bob, and I think, Miss Sullivan, you were foretelling my future. Every afternoon when my siblings and I got home from school, we were met with a question: Where is your homework? That query was followed by a command: Change out of your school clothes. We could never fool around the house wearing our nicest garments; we had to replace them with our old ones. Once wed done so, the three of us would sit at our table and work on our lessons. Only after wed completed our assignments could we huddle around the radio for an episode of Amos n Andy. The radio series was all the rage during the 1920s and 1930s. In it, two white actors (Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll) portrayed a pair of poor Black farmers whod left their land in Georgia and migrated north to Chicago, carrying just $24 and four ham-and-cheese sandwiches. In retrospect, I recognize how the shows characterizations covertly reinforced racist clich?s. But in those years, we were hungry to hear or see any representation of ourselves in the mainstream, even if those depictions were stereotypical. It was an acknowledgment that our presence in this nation matteredthat we were visible. Following the nightly episode we ate dinner, did our chores, and then, of course, scrubbed our underwear before climbing into the rollaway. Wed usually awaken to the aroma of Moms cooking. My mother was some kind of cook. Though I lacked a voracious appetite, the smell of her okra and cornmeal mush always made my mouth water. Her macaroni and cheese has yet to be rivaled by any other Ive tasted, though Im sure my mothers version contained enough condensed milk to trigger a diabetic coma. On weekdays, shed prepare our lunch before she went to work, stirring up a souffl? of creamy mashed potatoes, made all the more fluffy because she whipped in a soft-boiled egg. Shed slide a mound of those potatoes on a plate, put three pats of butter on top, wrap it up tight, and set it on our radiator to keep it warm. School was close by, so we had time to race home and eat at noon. By 10 a.m. during math class, Id already be dreaming of those potatoes. When I charged through our apartment door, theyd be there waiting for me on the radiator, the butter cascading down into a golden pool on the plates outer rim. Lord have mercy, I can almost taste them. Id be so eager to devour my lunch that Id sometimes neglect to say grace aloud. For health and strength and daily food, Id pray internally as I shoveled in the first spoonful, we praise Thy name, oh Lord, amen. I never once saw my mother look at a recipe. She kept everything in her head, just as her mother had: a pinch of this, a dash of that, and all meals made from scratch. During the holidays, shed weigh down our table with a royal feast: cookies, sugar cakes, coconut rum bread pudding, roasts, soups, curried goat, and potatoesyou name it. Friends and relatives traveled from all over town just to sample my moms clear broth. Decades later, after shed passed, none of us could replicate that broth. Emily came the closest. Emilys daughter, my niece Maxine, has now taken up the mantle. My mothers secret wasnt any one single ingredient. Her creations were a symphony of flavors, blended together perfectly with love immeasurable. 3 Church Girl CHURCH was the cornerstone of my childhood. My mother was determined that our foundation be spiritual, just as hers had been. There was Sunday service, followed by Monday and Wednesday prayer. Friday was choir rehearsal. Emily and I were in the choir as young children. On Thursdays and Fridays, there were usher board meetings, youth meetings, elders meetings, and any other gathering the pastor could dream up. On Saturdays, my family cleaned the church. When I tell you we were in Gods house all the time, I mean it. We attended where many West Indians did, St. Johns American Episcopal Catholic Church. In naming the church, our pastor clearly wanted to be inclusive, but our services followed the Episcopalian tradition. The original building, a storefront, was on 234 East Ninety-Ninth Street. The year I was eight, the congregation moved north to 1610 Lexington Avenue, near 102nd Street. I still recall the Sunday when our hundred or so members walked from the old spot to the new one, carrying lighted candles as we sang Lead on, oh King eternal, the day of march has come. The second space was a four-story brownstone converted into a place of worship. The sanctuary was on the main floor, and down below, there was a cavernous basement for all those meetings. Reverend Joseph Byron, who grew up in St. Kitts, lived with his wife and their five children above the sanctuary. The very top floor was rented out, providing the church with an income stream. By day, Reverend Byron watched over his flock. As a side job, he managed a moving van and shipping business. Emily and I were the best-dressed girls in church, as well as on the East Side, period. Mom made sure of that by sewing all our clothes, most of them from scratch, others using the Butterick and McCalls patterns she kept stuffed in a drawer. As she stitched together her magic on a hand-crank Singer machine, her wrist rotating round and round, shed periodically yell out, Sister, come try this on! Mom poked and prodded us with so many stickpins as we tried on a dozen versions of whatever she was making. It drove me mad. Because of that, I still refuse to try on clothes in a store. I just buy an armful of outfits, test them out at my leisure at home, and return whatever doesnt fit. It didnt take Mom two minutes to whip out her creations. Shed finish our dresses, which were usually just alike, during the week leading up to service. Then on Sundays, Emily and I would step in wearing our matching organza numbers with soft layers that fell gently as a balloon, or colorful ones with elaborate smockingfinished off with black patent-leather Mary Jane shoes, shined to the hilt. When the Tyson sisters showed up in church or anyplace else, we didnt look like we came from any slum. We sang a lot of the traditional hymns. Verse after verse of those songs will always live in my memory. I can still hear the congregations thunderous chorus of voices rising up to the rafters with Where He Leads Me, I Will Follow and Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross. My mothers favorite hymn was Blessed Assurance. In the early mornings before service, shed hum it in the kitchen as she cooked, the notes wafting through the air and settling over the peas and rice. Then in church, when the organ piped up with the songs opening line, shed clasp together her hands and close her eyes. Blessed assurance, shed sing as she swayed, Jesus is mine / Oh what a foretaste of glory divine. For my mother, that song was more than a hymn. It was a testimony of Gods unremitting guidance along her spiritual path, a journey ordained by a dove. Church was the one place where my timidity fell away. The deacons wives often staged little plays, based on Bible stories, for the youth to take part in. More than once, I was cast in the leading role of Mary, mother of Jesus. For all of my reticence, I relished delivering my lines as the members encouraged me on with claps and amens. I wasnt at all nervous to take the spotlight. Thats because in my moms mind, and thus in my own, I wasnt performing. A performance is what happened in the secular world, that sinful place Mom referred to as a den of iniquity. What we did in church was distinct from that realm and therefore sacred. Im blessed to have been raised in two rich spiritual traditions, Episcopalian and Baptist. On any Sunday when my parents couldnt make it to service, my siblings and I attended with Nana. Her Baptist church was right next door to St. Johns, but a universe away stylistically. Order lives at the center of an Episcopalian service. Each follows a familiar rhythm: opening hymn, Old and New Testament readings, a couple of choir selections, a sermon, and a final prayer. Our worship began at 11 a.m. and always ended at 12:30. In Nanas church, the Spirit, not the clock, took the lead. As Reverend Hawkins whooped and wailed from the pulpit, the saints leaped from their pews and danced up and down the aisles to the staccato beat of the tambourine, the organs vibrations providing the scenes musical score. Service lasted for two hours or more, until the Holy Ghost got ready to simmer down. Id sometimes fall asleep next to Nana, my cheek pressed into the pew cushion as the fire around me raged on. When I was seven, Nana said to me and Emily, Wouldnt you girls like to sing for our congregation next Sunday? Emily thought the idea sounded silly and declined. I, basking in the glow of a recent star turn as Mary in my own church, agreed. Mom, Emily, and Melrose went to St. Johns, as usual, while Dad and I joined Nana in her service. Please give a warm welcome to little Miss Cicely! Reverend Hawkins announced. As the congregation applauded, my father led me, in my emerald velvet dress and lace-trimmed socks, to the pulpit. The pastor handed me a microphone, and for a moment, I just stood there, not sure what Id sing. In lieu of a plan, I belted out the opening line of a number Id often heard and loved there in Nanas church. How do you do, my lovin pastor, how do you do? I hollered, half-singing and half-chanting. The room erupted as the organist quickly found my key and began accompanying me. A row of women in colorful wide-brimmed hats jumped up, lifting hankies and hallelujahs before I could launch into the next couple of refrains. How do you do, congregation, how do you do? I sang. How do you do, choir, how do you do? On and on I went until, moments later, something occurred that still makes me smile. Four deacons made their way from the front pew to the pulpit and set me on a small wooden chair. Each of them clasped one leg of the chair, hoisted me heavenward in unison, and began parading me through the aisles. How do you do, Gods children, how do you do?! I sang, increasing my volume and climbing an octave each time they lifted me higher. How do you do, saints, how do you do?! The congregation joined in, howling in disbelief that a child as young as me was singing with such fervor and conviction. After service, my father couldnt get home fast enough to tell my mother how proud he was of his Sis. She turned the place upside down! he gushed. Before he could finish his recounting, others from church stopped in to give my mom the details as I stood by blushing. Honestly, I couldnt understand what the fuss was about. All I knew was that when I was up there on that chair, my Mary Janes dangling, my voice rising up from someplace deep within me, I felt a rush. The Spirit, twisting and flailing and arching its back, had shuddered through me. And as it did, my shyness vanished. * * * As far back as I can recall, Ive known I have a sixth sensean innate ability to see, feel, hear, taste, and smell events before they happen. Strong evidence of this prescience came in the winter of 1932, the December I turned eight. On an afternoon when my parents were out working, I smelled smoke and thought the scent was coming from the building next door. Melrose and I went out to look around, as well as to check on our neighbor, a woman our family knew well. I smell smoke, I told her when she opened the door. What do you mean you smell smoke? she asked. I think something is burning, I said. She glanced at the living room and kitchen behind her and then stared back at me. Well nothings on fire in here, she said. I dont smell anything. That week, my mother had bought me a new pair of Sunday shoes. I felt so convinced of an impending blaze that I went into our closet, pulled out my box of Mary Janes, and cradled it close to my chest. I wasnt about to let my shoes go up in smoke. In fact, I even slept with that box next to me on the rollaway. When no sparks flew that evening, I forgot all about what Id smelled. Two days later, I awakened to the squeal of sirens slicing through the frigid air. In the building next door, thered been an electrical fireone that began in our friends apartment. The fire crew thankfully arrived soon enough to evacuate the place and douse the flames before they spread. Later, when our neighbor came by and gave us that report, all I could think was, Good Lord, I knew it. I had these premonitions frequently. Like the many times when Id be talking about someone, and ten minutes later, that person would appear at our front door. Or those occasions when Id tell my mother that someone in our church was quite sick. How do you know? shed ask. I saw it last night in a dream, Id say. And sure enough, Reverend Byron would stop in with news that the person Id seen in my dream had taken ill. In other instances, Id overhear my parents talking in their bedroom. My dad would tell my mom that hed run into so-and-so that day at the market. Mom would laugh and say, I know. What do you mean? hed ask. Sister told me that yesterday, shed say. She dreamed it. My mother also had this sixth sense. I dont know whether her parents were born with it as well, but theres no question that my mother possessed it. Sister, come here and sit down, she said to me one morning before she left for work. I slid into a chair at our table and she locked her eyes on mine. I dreamed last night that I saw you going through the window, she said. Do not wash any windows today, you hear me? Its a school day, I reminded her, and I only wash windows on Saturdays. Did you hear what I told you? she snapped. Do not wash any windows today. I nodded and hushed my mouth. That afternoon after school, Emily and I were playing in our apartment near a set of glass French doors that separated the living room from the bedroom. My sister flung open the two panels and then slammed them behind her. In an effort to keep her from closing me out, I lunged toward the doors. As I did, the glass shattered and sliced through my right arm, starting near my inside wrist and extending up two inches. Our neighbor, Miss OConnor, heard the commotion and rushed over to find me lying in a pool of crimson. She wrapped my wrist in a towel and rushed me to a nearby drugstore. The pharmacist urged her to take me to the emergency room, where the doctors stitched me up. Nine decades later, the scar remainsa reminder of my mothers uncanny ability to predict, often with chilling accuracy, what would occur. When I was small, my sixth sense did not seem odd to me or scare me. I had only my experience as a reference point, only knew what it felt like to live in my own body. And though that fire did get my attention (What if our neighbor hadnt made it out of her building in time? How could I have lived with myself for not insisting that she clear the premises?), I didnt give most of my premonitions much credence or thought. That began to shift as I grew older and my insights increased in both number and significance. One incident in particular spooked me. I was eleven when my Aunt Beatrice passed away, a few years after wed lost my Uncle George. Before the memorial, our family stayed overnight with my cousins in Montclair. Mom and I slept together on the second floor. My aunts casket was already there in the house. In those days, it was common for a loved ones body to be transferred from the funeral parlor to the familys home on the night before the service. At 2 a.m., I made my way downstairs to the main floor to use the bathroom. While in there, I heard the front door to the house creak open and then slam shut. I thought little of it. With so many relatives around, folks had been going and coming a lot. Who came in? my mother asked when I returned upstairs to bed. I dont know, I answered. What do you mean you dont know? she pressed. Werent you just downstairs? Yeah, but I didnt see anyone, I told her. I drifted to sleep. And in my dream, Aunt Beatrice appeared and spoke to me. I hope I didnt frighten you this morning, she said. I wanted to say goodbye to all of my loved ones, and I was trying to make it back into my casket before anyone missed me. The second my eyelids slid open later that morning, I sat up straight and announced to my mother, It was Aunt Beatrice who slammed the door. Mom didnt say a word. She also didnt seem surprised by my revelation and didnt quiz me about it. She just grinned, shook her head, and rose from the bed to begin preparing for the day. Maybe Aunt Beatrice had also shown up in my mothers dream. Or maybe Mom thought I was talking some foolishness. Or maybe my mothers smile was one of recognition as she recalled the woman whod once predicted my clairvoyance. Unlike my earlier extrasensory perceptions, this one unnerved me. Its one thing to have an ability to foretell the future; its a completely different matter to actually be visited by a ghost. The vision was so brilliantly lucid: I could see my aunt in all of her color and dimensions, could practically reach out and take her hand. It seemed as real as if shed actually been there in the room with me, and in the world of my dream, she was. The experience of her presence, even in the reality of its absence, truly spooked me. Why was I the one sensing these spirits and hearing these voices? Why didnt other children, or even my own brother and sister, have these intuitive insights? In place of answers, I had only my fear to contend with. During my whole childhood, my mother and I never openly discussed her sixth sense or mine, nor did she tell me then about the strangers prophecy. Like a great many other topics in the Tyson house, Mom simply chose not to address my third eye, even amid irrefutable evidence of its presence. Years would pass before Id view my ability not as a burden to be frightened of, but as a rarity to be embraced. * * * We each have many faces, various ways of appearing and behaving. In one moment, we may show remarkable steadfastness, and in another, an aching vulnerability. We can be at turns tranquil and belligerent, jubilant and despairing. We are inherently multifaceted and yet marvelously complete. This was true of my mother and father, two human beings as nuanced and complex as any of us. As I grew up, I became acquainted with each of my mothers faces. There was her reserved nature, the quiet girl once known as Dosha. Whenever I heard someone call my mother by her childhood nicknamewhich was short for Theodosia, her middle nameI knew the person had known my mom since her days in Nevis. Dosha nodded more than she spoke; if a cashier greeted her in a store, she smiled sheepishly. That face of my mother reflected all that was innocent and generous and good in her, all the warmth and care her own mom once bestowed. Mom seldom talked about her Mu-ma, as she called her, but my mothers kindness across the miles said plenty. She did not have the financial resources to visit Nevis, but every chance she got, Mom would pack a large barrel with food and clothes and have Reverend Byron ship it to her mother. During holidays, shed also send a large ham. Before she closed the barrel, shed round up a few dollars, tie the bills in the foot of an old nylon stocking, and stick it someplace in between the other gifts. Then there were Moms other sides. At times she was joyous, like when she sang while preparing supper. As she stirred one pot and lifted the lid from another, shed have her head tied up in a scarf, her cotton Hoover apron over her house clothes, and her bare feet slid into my fathers old shoes, which shed turned into her slippers by smashing down their backs. In those moments, she was carefree. In other instances, she revealed her fiery streak. Feisty Fredericka would blurt out Damn it to hell if she was tested, which life and my father ensured she was. It was this Fredericka who thought nothing of throwing a hairbrush in my direction when I defied her. In public, my mother wore yet another demeanor: proud and unwavering, a sturdy oak refusing to be uprooted. She had the same rigid back she passed on to me. No matter what she was struggling with or how short on money she found herself, she held her head high and marched onward. She had the pocketbook of a pauper but the posture of a queen, exuding a regality that prompted others to regard her as such. We may be poor, shed often say, but once you leave your house, people dont have to know whether youve got a pot of tea or a back door to throw it out of. She was what I call swelegant, a combination of swell and elegantblessed with a models figure and a wardrobe shed tailored so precisely to her frame. When she and my dad strode into St. JohnsMom in her rayon frock, high heels, and straw hat cocked to one sidea hush fell over the sanctuary. She and my father were the most handsome couple in church. They dressed to maim and to kill. My father was a study in contrasts. Even as a boy, he brimmed with the vitality that drew my mother to him. Magnetism coursed through his arteries. Your father is a star, my cousin Bette would often say. She was right. Dad was artistically gifted, like all of the Tysons. My fathers cousin, Donald Walbridge Shirley, was the renowned classical and jazz pianist whose life is depicted in the 2018 Oscar Awardwinning film Green Book. My dad himself wasnt a trained musician, yet he played the guitar and sang with perfect pitch, enchanting all who heard his robust yet smooth vocals. And like my mother, he was a dresser and a stepper. Talk about a Dapper Dan . . . that man had swagger! Like many soldiers, he wore metal heel taps on his shoes, and boy, you could hear him coming long before you saw him. Even when operating his produce stand, he strutted through town in a stylish suit to go along with his air of confidence. My father also had an unpleasant face, one Im still trying to reconcile with his other, more admirable ones. When he was good, he was very gooda man so committed to us that he often pushed around that cart fifteen hours a day to keep our rent paid and our stomachs full. But when my father behaved badly, he was horrid. He was a womanizer. He never drank alcohol, but ego was his strong tonic. Throughout my childhood, he carried on illicit affairs around town. Maybe these sexual escapades allowed him to temporarily escape the burden of his circumstances, to forget the indignities of being Black and poor. To be colored in early-twentieth-century America was to brave an existence even more fraught with anxiety than our current times are. Whatever forces might have lured my father into the arms of women, he did not resist. Word of my fathers liaisons snaked through our community and slithered onto my moms doorstep. Even before she heard tell of his infidelity, shed spotted it in my fathers every gesture, in the flecks of remorse on his brow. Dad had been brought up to respect his vows and his spiritual values, but he cast both aside when temptation turned his single roving eye into two. Beneath Dads charisma lived an underbelly of compulsiveness, a tendency to allow his passions, virtuous and vile, to overtake him. Those passions rose to the top surface when he and my mother argued bitterly about his philandering. He sometimes struck her. Much of the conflict between my parents happened behind closed doors. In the late evenings as I lay huddled next to my brother and sister on the rollout, Id hear Dads footsteps as he stomped home after hours of revelry with various women. He wore his emotions on his feet. I knew by the thumpity-thump of his heavy steps, that loud tapping of his heels, that war was imminent. Bang. Bang. Bang. Ba-dang. Hed bound over our threshold and onto the battlefield, the flames of his coming antagonism toward my mother stoked by his own guilt. Mom, whod be up waiting, stood ready to confront him. So as not to wake us, theyd take their brawl into the bedroom. Through sobs, Mom hurled shoes and accusations, demanding that Dad end his trysts. I dont know how Emily and Melrose slept through these ordeals, but they always seemed to. Id overhear everything. Id pretend to be knocked out as I quivered beneath my blanket, nursing my thumb in an effort to soothe myself. Occasionally, their discord would spill over, like smoldering lava, into the kitchen and across the living room where we slept. When my parents arguments there became physical, Id leap from bed and wedge my body between theirs, pleading for my father to lower his voice and his hand. Stop, Daddy! Id wail, hot tears flooding my face as I banged on my fathers chest. Please stop! Leave my mother alone! That interrupted the fighting but seldom ended it. My parents would put me back in bed, disappear into their room, and carry on with their ruckus. Just as we each have more than one face, we also carry an array of conflicting emotions. I revered my father, then and now. At the same time, I could not stand how his infidelity humiliated my mother, how his outbursts frightened me to my core. When hed pound up those stairs, ready for a fight, the Daddy I so admired became the one I resented, the one who raised a fist to my mother and to his own wife. And yet this was the same devoted father whod balanced me on his knee, the man whod celebrated me, his little String Bean, every chance he got. This was the Willie whod courted Dosha from across an ocean and forged a life for his family in their new homeland. But he was also someone who, at times, fell devastatingly short in demonstrating his love. Even with my childhood long behind me, I find it difficult to lay bare my parents blemishes. My instinct is to protect their legacies in a world where we are too often demonized. My mom and dad, with all of their frailties, are part of a centuries-long story, a narrative setting that hangs behind myriad Black lives. That story harkens back to when our foreparents were herded onto ships, their naked bodies stacked, row after row amid vomit and sewage, for the treacherous Middle Passage. That tale continued as more than two hundred years of enslavement pressed its foot down on our necks. Our men were emasculated and thrashed, our women raped and brutalized, our families ripped apart and auctioned off like cattle, our grueling labor uncompensated. We still bear the emotional and economic scars. The assault on us, and its resulting trauma, spans generations. Our traditions, our communities, our dignityall of it has endured barbarous attack. And when someone makes an assassination attempt on your tribe, you adopt a posture of self-defense. You fold in on yourself as a way to cover your wounds. And you dare not hand your assailant another weapon, another piece of shrapnel he or she will use to further shame and dehumanize your people. This is the painful history my parents were born into. And it is only against this backdrop that their many choices and faces can be understood. Two human beings whose ancestors were declared savage beasts. Two imperfect souls loved by a perfect God. * * * In the days after my parents clashed, Id often notice another of my moms dispositionsthe reflective one. She would sit in her rocking chair in the bedroom, shaking her head and repeating under her breath, This life, this life. A canvas bag filled with peanuts was her sole companion during those times. Every weekend, shed buy a pound of them. Shed give Emily, Melrose, and me a handful, and then shed take to her wooden chair, shelling those nuts one by one and peering out the window. I could feel her anguish. That is why I found it so bewildering when shed occasionally chuckle. Why are you laughing, Mom? Id ask. Child, shed whisper as she pulled another nut from the bag, I am laughing at my own calamities. As Mom rocked herself back and forth, I now imagine she was tucking away her sorrows, relegating them to the farthest corner of her heart, concealing them the way she did her Mu-mas bills in those barrels. Dosha, the shy island girl, must have been secretly weeping over the abuse she withstood. But Fredericka, the immovable oak with three children whose survival rested upon her courage, kept much of her agony hidden. 4 Transitions I WAS nine the autumn my world cracked into two. One early morning in 1934, I awakened still a child. When the sun closed its eyes on that day, my girlhood, like a fragile vase, had toppled from a table ledge and smashed onto the floor. The previous year, the pungent smell of my fathers adultery had drifted into our church. Dad began secretly carrying on with a woman who shared our pews, and from the onset of the liaison, Mom had sniffed it out. For months, she insisted that my father end the affair, and for months, he ignored her. One Saturday evening, Dad stomped up our stairs, raring to go for one of his and my mothers usual rounds of acrimony. The next afternoon, Mom got the last deafening word in their argument. After service, Emily and I stepped outdoors and into an altercation. There, at the foot of the church stairs, my mother was right in the face of the Other Woman. I want peace in my household! Mom screamed with such force that a shower of spittle landed on the womans cheeks. Melrose watched from nearby, holding my mothers hat and pocketbook amid the group of church members whod huddled to witness the feud. Get away from my husband and my family! my mother yelled. I cannot recall whether the woman had been in church with us that day, but I will always remember what occurred next. Melrose, out of an instinct to defend our mom, picked up a pebble and threw it at the womans leg. The shouting ceased. A second later, the scene stirred back to life when Emily and I barreled down the stairs, collected several rocks from the ground, and hurled them at the womans back. Get away from our mother! I squealed in unison with Emily. My mom, perhaps emboldened by our show of solidarity, resumed her shouting and added shoving. The woman pushed back. Thats when Reverend Byron came outside and leaped toward them. Calm down! he said, attempting to pry them apart. Mom kept on shoving and swinging. Mrs. Tyson, thats enough! the pastor shouted. Once hed managed to squeeze his body between the two, that lady could hardly stand. She slowly backed away, straightening her blouse and inhaling deeply as she did. I tell you, boy, my mother whipped that womans behind. Thank the Lord none of our stones hit her in the head. Just as the embers were settling, my father strode out of the church doors. Everyone froze and peered at him, our gazes delivering a judgment that neednt be uttered. My father had lit this fire, and all those gathered realized it. The rumors of his infidelity were, by then, commonly known, even if rarely acknowledged aloud. Dad was silent. He stood there with shock on his face, stunned that his wife had done something he hadnt predicted shed do: allow their marital animosity to ignite into a spectacle. Right there in our spiritual town square, the privately fierce Fredericka had made her grand public debut, intent on defending her honor and her territory. This was more than my father had bargained for, and by his countenance, I knew it had frightened him. And yet it did not scare him enough to alter his course. My dad and the woman set aside their relationship for a time, but by that spring, they were back at it. That turned up the heat on my parents tension. In the evenings, Dad would sit at our table and share dinner with us. Almost before the last plantain had touched his tongue, he was out the door with hardly a goodbye. Mom realized where he was going. We all did. With each passing month, my mothers resentment rose. She no longer prepared his supper plates. Shed make our dinner, feed us early, and leave the remaining rice and peas on the stove for him to spoon up for himself whenever he came home. She also refused to wash his clothes. Shed throw his soiled shirts in a tin pail and let them soak in water for days, the washboard resting on the pails side, beckoning him to pick it up. As Mom saw it, Dads dirty laundry, cotton and otherwise, was his alone to deal with. One morning when my father was on his way out the door for work, he said to me, Sis, when you come home from school today, I want you to wash these underwear for me. He nodded toward the pail overflowing with his long johns, the heavy flannels my mother had sewn for him. On those days when my father set aside his cart to work at painting the Triborough Bridge, his thermals kept out the cold. Yes, Daddy, I said. I had every intention of laundering the underwear. But that afternoon, I got so caught up in my homework that I never made it around to the chore. I climbed into bed with absolutely no memory of what my father had asked me to do. Early the next morning, Dad awakened me, Emily, and Melrose. Mom, who had a rare day off from work, was still in her housedress and headscarf. Sister, didnt I ask you to wash out these underwear for me?! he shouted. Yes, Daddy, I said as I rubbed my eyes, but I forgot. My mother, stone-faced, stared at him from across the living room. Melrose and Emily dropped their eyes to the floor. My hands began to tremor. Well Im going to show every damn one of you something! he shouted. Daddy tore through the apartment, smashing the washboard in half, knocking over the pail of long johns, emptying Moms freshly made stew out of a cast-iron skillet and into the sink. As we looked on in horror, my father stormed into the bedroom and toward a chest of drawers where my mother stashed her earnings. He picked up an iron, propelled its sharpest edge toward the bureaus top drawer, and punctured the lock with such power that the drawer could no longer be opened. Mom said nothing. She was as astounded as we were by my fathers rampage. Come on, children, get up from here, she finally urged us. In silence, we put away our rollout as we glanced around our apartment, surveying the damage, calculating the impact on our family. Once we were all dressed, Mom ushered us outside. She took me by one hand, Emily by another, and the three of us walked, alongside Melrose, to my fathers pushcart on Second Avenue. Mr. Taylor, who managed the cart with my father, was already there working. Keep an eye on these children for me, my mother told him. He read in her eyes that thered been trouble with Willie, heard the anxiety in her tone. Ill be back shortly, Mom said. He nodded and we gathered near him around the cart as my mother walked off. No one spoke. In my head, I was still trying to make sense of what was unfolding, replaying the reel of Dads explosion. Mr. Taylor reached into his pocket, pulled out a quarter, and handed it to Melrose. Hed sensed Moms desperation and wanted to help our family, in some small way, financially. That gave enterprising Melrose an idea. Just as hed done so often when he was out working the cart with my father, my dear brother scurried off to the corner store and returned with two enormous armfuls of brown paper shopping bags. Hed talked the merchant into selling him the bags for half a cent each, with the hope that we could resell them for a profit. You might be able to get two cents apiece for these, said Mr. Taylor as he inspected the square bags, clearly pleased with my brothers initiative. Lets go out and see how we do. Melrose handed each of us a stack. We made our way up Second Avenue, offering bystanders our wares. Two cents a bag! Melrose yelled. Within minutes, hed sold three. Emily and I, initially glued to Mr. Taylors side, sold a few as well. As the sidewalks swelled with passersby on their way to work, we eventually decided to divide up so we could cover more territory. Melrose and Emily wandered up the avenue together. Mr. Taylor kept me in sight from across the street. Near the corner of 105th, a middle-aged white man strolled by. Mister, I said shyly, care to buy a bag for two cents? I held up a bag. He looked first at the bag, and then he lowered his eyes onto my bustline. His lips spread into an eerie grin. No, he leaned in and whispered as he ogled my chest, but I will give you five cents for it if you let me touch your breasts. I dropped the bags. With adrenaline surging through me, I scrambled to the ground and gathered the totes into a jumbled heap. I darted away, escaping across the street to reunite with Mr. Taylor. The man went on about his business, looking back at me over his shoulder as he walked off. Everything all right? said Mr. Taylor, whod seen me dropping the bags. Yes, I lied. Was that man bothering you? he asked. I shook my head from side to side as my insides screamed otherwise. At nine, I was still quite skinny. But developmentally, I was ahead of schedule: my breasts had come in early. Still, they couldnt have been any bigger than apricots. And yet on my petite frame, they appeared to be the size of peaches that this man believed were his to pick. I hadnt yet begun wearing bras, had only my shirt as a barrier between my chest and that mans animalistic gaping. As hed undressed me with his eyes, my knees buckled, my spirit revolted. It was the first time Id ever been approached in a sexual manner. It was the last time I felt truly safe. With his hungry gaze, this stranger had stolen from me a sense of security. That is what violation does: it wrenches away ones God-given freedom to exhale, to feel relaxed and unguarded in this world. You dont have to be physically touched to be emotionally robbed. For the rest of that morning, I stayed two inches from Mr. Taylors elbow. Down the avenue and back we walked, holding up our bags as I prayed inwardly for my dear mother. I felt fearful about continuing, but I knew Mom needed our help. We stayed out on that street for three hours, until every one of our fifty bags was sold, earning us a one-dollar return on Mr. Taylors twenty-five-cent investment. Before dusk, Mom arrived at the cart to pick us up. Mr. Taylor presented her with the dollar as he proudly told her about my brothers resourcefulness. She thanked Mr. Taylor and Melrose profusely and we left. But instead of returning to our apartment, Mom led us to Ninety-Eighth Street and Third Avenue. We stopped at a building marked 234 East Ninety-Eighth. Mom led us up a rickety staircase to an apartment on the fourth floor. She pulled out a large silver key, turned it inside the lock, and pushed opened the heavy wooden door. Emily, Melrose, and I darted into the two-bedroom space, peering at our possessions scattered across the living room and wondering how theyd gotten there. Mom rested her pocketbook on the radiator and said to us, This is our new home. True to Moms nature, she let a decade pass before she told me all the distress that day had held for her. After leaving us with Mr. Taylor, she returned to our apartment. By then, my father had gone off someplace. Mom yanked up the bottom corner of her mattress, dug into an open slit shed made with her sewing scissors, and fished out the wad of cash shed been hiding there for months. She counted out $500. She then dashed to the corner store and purchased some boxes. Back in our apartment, she singlehandedly packed up the few things we owned. Near the doorway, she stacked her boxes alongside her sewing machine, our beds, and the broken bureau. She did not touch my fathers things. Over the next hour, she walked all over our area in search of vacancy signs. She discovered one at 234 and inquired about it. The landlord offered Mom a price she could afford for a place that would still be within walking distance of our school. Within hours of my fathers fit of rage, shed put down a deposit on our new lives. Once shed secured the apartment, Mom went to see Reverend Byron. Im leaving Willie, is all she said, her speech steady. He nodded in recognition, requiring no explanation beyond the steadfastness etched on her face. The Reverend offered her one of his moving vans, as well as some extra hands. Soon after, he and several deacons arrived at our apartment and helped my mother load up everything. As they hauled boxes, my father returned home. He stood in the doorway and gaped at the scene before him. The children and I are leaving, my mother said plainly. Ive already found a new apartment. He did not attempt to stop her, nor did he question her choice. And particularly in the presence of Reverend Byron, whom my dad respected, he did not dare argue. He knew by Moms sternness, that nothing he could say would change her trajectory. He could sense her resolve, could feel his own fault in the matter. He gathered his belongings and packed them, and then he poked through Moms boxes to be sure none of his effects had been inadvertently mixed in with ours. To this moment, I am in awe of how my mom made it through that day. Please dont tell me anything about Black women, about our extraordinary fortitude and resilience, because I know precisely who we are. Beneath the burdensome weights of abuse and degradation, my mother straightened her spine, summoned the strength of God and her ancestors, and bravely stepped ahead. She felt as frightened as any woman would, felt her stomach climbing into her throat. But when circumstances called on her to rise, she answered with nary a quake in her voice. By jamming that lock on the bureau, my father thought hed rendered my mother financially helpless. But never once during their relationship was he able to rupture her resourcefulness. Like so many in our world do, my father gravely underestimated a Black womans ingenuity. He hadnt counted on Mom creating a second stockpile of cash, just as he hadnt anticipated shed teach the Other Woman a lesson amid a whirlwind of dust. And what had been true on that autumn day was undeniable on this one: my mother had had enough. That morning, Dad had unleashed an inferno that prompted Mom to move her children out of his destructive path. Without realizing it, my father had crossed a red line of demarcation, the one labeled Maternal Instinct. And when he blazed his way out our front door, my mother found a way to march us through a new one. That is power. That is tenacity. That is an oak. Our father showed up at the new apartment that evening. How did he know we were here? I wondered as he casually entered. He must have seen the question in my eyes because he said, Sis, I came to put a new lock on the door. My mother had been the one to give him our address and had even asked him to come and install our old lock on the new door. Her intent hadnt been to ban him from our lives, only to put some distance between their children and his tirades. I wonder if he is going to stay here, I thought. Maybe they made up. They hadnt. But they did put a peace treaty in place. Dad would be present in our world. He just wouldnt permanently reside with us. After leaving our old apartment that morning, hed rented his own place a few streets away. As Dad unscrewed the lock, his hands shook ever so slightly. Tears welled up in his eyes and threatened to escape. He was absolutely broken. He knew he was to blame, that his womanizing had provoked the rift. In the following years, Mom would often say that the Other Woman had splintered our home, that shed created so much misery for our family. But in the quietest chambers of their hearts, my mom and dad must have known the reality. That woman spotted a crack in my parents connection, a fissure that had been forming for quite some time. She simply slid her way into a deep crevice that was already in existence. My dad had been the one most culpable for fracturing our family. On that Sunday when we children cast our stones, we struck just one of the two Goliaths. My father, the taller and more accountable giant of the pair, initially went untouched. I lingered near my dads side as he installed the lock. When he finished, he leaned in close to me and whispered, I threw away all the things your mother used to beat you with. During the long months of his latest affair, Moms tongue had dripped with more and more venom. When she called me Father Face, she did so with a sneer. Given how much I resembled my dad, as well as how much my mom detested his unfaithfulness, my dad feared Id pay a blistering price in the coming years whenever my appearance reminded my mother of his. So when Moms back had been turned that morning, hed removed some wooden hangers and extension cords from her boxes. He also took her jump ropes. If I, Emily, or Melrose disobeyed our mother, shed sometimes sit on the edge of her bed and braid three of those ropes together as she warned, This is for you. I didnt know what to think about my fathers attempt to spare me a beating. In one respect, I was relieved that Mom would have fewer weapons to use against me. But in another regard, I understood it was my dads conduct, not my mothers belt, that had created this upheaval in our home. His comment left me feeling as if I were somehow in the middle, just as Id been on all those nights when Id crammed my body between theirs, begging them to surrender. And from my place at the center, I vacillated between my tremendous love for my father and my anger at his behavior. After Dad had gone, Melrose set up our pullout. Until Mom bought each of us a bed, that is where we slept. As the sun set on the most painful pivot of my childhood, I lay there quietly weeping next to Emily. Much as I knew my fathers affairs were the true reason for our familys dissolution, I also felt deeply responsible. I had been the one to forget about what my father had asked me to do, had been the child whod left his underwear sitting in that pail, soaked with water, heavy with enough proverbial kerosene to spark flames. It was my forgetfulness that had catapulted him into the fury that overturned our world. However untrue I now know that is, it is what I felt as a girl. For some, childhood innocence slips away in small increments, over years, with the steady ticktock of a metronome. I lost my wide-eyed naivete in one frightful pendulum swing, in the cadence of a single day. My space and spirit violated. My family irreparably broken. 5 The Other America I SAW two horror films as a childone in a theater, another on a sidewalk in the Bronx. The first frightened the daylights out of me. The second vexed my spirit. The sanctified and the secular were not mixed in our home, so Hollywood films, as part of the latter world, were mostly absent during my upbringing. Emily, Melrose, and I did sometimes watch movies at church. In the basement, the youth leaders would string a sheet onto a wall, set up a small projector, and play films they felt were appropriate for us, like Little Rascals or any other show with Black children in the cast. They wanted to instill in us a pride in our heritage. Reflecting back to us, on the screen, those who shared our features was a way to affirm us, even if the characters available to us then sometimes reinforced racial stereotypes. (Little Rascals, for instance, was ahead of its time in featuring cross-cultural friendships, but the clueless Buckwheat, with his wildly spiked hair, spoke very little, and when he did, he often mumbled incoherently.) Church films aside, never once had my mom taken us to see a movie in a theater. That changed in 1935, the year I turned eleven. Though my mother and father had been separated for quite some time by then, they would occasionally still go at it, especially when Dad came by our apartment talking some nonsense. One Saturday during spring, Mom had heard enough and hastened my father out the door. Soon after, she blurted out a sentence that hadnt ever passed her lips. Children, were going to the movies, she said matter-of-factly, as if we regularly took part in that activity. My sister, brother, and I exchanged looks of disbelief and scrambled to put on our shoes. Mom needed to lay down her burdens on this afternoon, and for reasons unknown to me, she chose to lower them in the aisles of a darkened theater. We walked to the Eagle Theatre, a movie house then at 102nd Street and Third Avenue. King Kong was playing. We settled into our seats as the lights dimmed and the curtains parted. The moment that massive gorilla pounded onto the screen, my throat closed. I eventually caught my breath, only to lose it again when Kong thrust his eight-foot hand into the apartment of the blond starlet (portrayed by Canadian actress Fay Wray). I gasped, burying my face in Moms shoulder. As the monster snatched the lady from her bed and pulled her from the window, she flailed her arms and screamed bloody helland for months after that, so did I. In all of my childhood, King Kong was the only film I saw at the cinema, and Mom regretted choosing that one. At nights, Id wake up howling from a nightmare. I didnt step foot in a theater again until the 1972 premiere of Sounder. Thats how disturbing I found that beast. I seem to recall my mother putting me between her and my father in bed, attempting but failing to pacify me, but Im not sure how that couldve been because theyd already split. The year of King Kong brought with it an even more frightful drama, this one from the real-life chronicle I call Being Poor and Black. After my parents separated, Mom took on more work. By then, shed moved on from her nanny job but continued as a housekeeper. Between her permanent shifts, she also sought out daylong cleaning jobs. Her clients were well-to-do Jewish families. Shed come home loaded down with shoes and clothes, as well as food left over from the portions shed made for her employers. That is how I came to enjoy matzo ball and borscht soups. Particularly with her regulars, Mom was embraced as a family member, though one of course not completely in the fold. Yes, she was treated with great kindness and felt strongly attached to these families, but at the end of the day, she was still the help. As long as she and others like her dared not stray outside the bounds of their status, love overflowed. Therein lies the dynamic in which Black people can be seen and even welcomed by whites, but seldom genuinely known by them, rarely viewed beyond the limited, one-dimensional role we play in their narrativea saga in which a blond woman, not a Black one, is nearly always the beauty to be saved, the damsel in distress deserving of rescue from a monster like Kong. That same year, on a Saturday morning a few weeks before Easter, Mom said to me, Take the train to the Bronx this afternoon and well go to Alexanders together. Though shed already made my dress for our most sacred religious holiday, Mom wanted me to pick out some new shoes and a pocketbook to complete my ensemble. She scribbled down the address where I was to meet her and handed me the paper. Nomad that I am, I couldnt get myself out of our apartment fast enough. It was raining when I got off at my stop, near the busy shopping district where Third Avenue and East 149th Street intersect. In those days, Alexanders, one of the citys most prominent discount clothing store chains, was in a sprawling building called The Hub, which I spotted upon exiting the El. From there, I began searching for the address Mom had given me, checking the number on every building, pulling the hood of my raincoat down over my forehead to guard me from the drizzle. I finally glimpsed the street name Mom had given me. As I turned onto the block, I spotted a group of about twelve Black women along the sidewalk. What are these ladies doing here? I wondered, scanning the faces and recognizing none. My mom wouldnt be here. She doesnt know these women. I paced onward. And then suddenly, just as I was walking off, I heard someone say, Sister. I spun around and there, among the women, stood my mother. I looked again at the women surrounding Mom, struggling to make sense of why theyd all be gathered there in a group. Right then, a white woman approached. She tilted back her umbrella, scanned one of the Black women from head to toe, and said to her, Can you start now? The woman nodded and followed her. A few more white women strolled past and repeated a similar exchange. On the street, a couple of Buicks slowed down alongside us as motorists peered out their windows at Mom and the others. I took in the sight as an awareness jolted through me: these women were lined up to be considered for work, inspected as if on an auction block the way enslaved Africans once were. Who was the strongest? Whose teeth were cleanest? Who among these apes was least likely to stir up trouble? Which one was worthy of purchase? The scene was reminiscent of what Black people had experienced time and again during the most shameful chapter of Americas history. One by one, strangers waltzed up to survey them with a sweeping glance, hardly looking into the womens eyes as they determined who seemed decent or tidy or docile enough to cross their thresholds and clean their homes. I obviously knew my mother worked as a domestic, but Id grasped that fact only in concept, the way Id theoretically understood, through reading, the ruthless brutality my ancestors withstood. But on that sidewalk, as onlookers stopped by to evaluate my mom, the agonizing truth of her situation settled over me. Id never imagined that my own mother, a queen who wore her dignity as a splendorous, flowing silk cape, could be in such a position. Id never imagined that someone so majestic would have to put up her labor for sale while casting her gaze downward in deference to white strangers. That reality cut me deeply, sliced through the raw flesh of my insides. It stung me in the same way that my Italian classmates words once had. And just as Id done then, I shoved down the hurt, locked it behind an unmarked door in my heart where griefs unimaginable reside. The experience was yet another discovery of how my people were viewed. It was a reminder of our true position in this nation, like a map with an enormous red dot labeled You are here. Black children learn where they stand in this world by recognizing the spaces where our people can and cannot enter, and if granted access, whether our presence and humanity will be regarded as equal. Earlier that day, Mom had finished her usual work shift. Shed stopped on this street, the known pickup location for housekeepers, only in hopes of booking another job for after wed shopped. But she didnt linger on that sidewalk long enough to be chosen. Shed noticed my disbelief, seen how Id hesitated to walk toward her after shed called to me. There was a flicker of shame in her eyes. Her embarrassment wasnt about seeking out the kind of work she could get as a Black immigrant in 1930s America. It was about my reaction. Come on, she said, taking me by the hand and leading me from the huddle. Alexanders is over there. I dont want to go anymore, I mumbled. Whats the matter with you, child? she asked. Nothing, I said, my expression betraying my claim. I just dont want to go. We went anyway. And as we navigated the packed store in search of my Easter accessories, I replayed in my head the scene Id witnessed. All of these years later, I have not gotten over the horror of what happened on that street. I may never. * * * The era I grew up in both deepened my racial wound and soothed it with the healing balm of the arts. My childhood spanned the 1920s and 1930s, two of the most economically memorable and culturally rich decades in US historya period when Negro literature, music, and culture flourished. The Roaring Twenties rollicked joyously with jazz, decadence, and illegal whiskey, while the thunderous market crash of 1929 rattled nerves throughout the thirties. What these shifts meant to daily life, or whether they had any noticeable consequence at all, depended upon where you lived and how much you were able to earnboth of which were inextricably tied to the color of your skin. The United States has never been one nation under God but several nations gazing up at him, dissimilar faces huddled beneath a single flag. In white America, the twenties may have roared, but in my Black worldin what has been called the Other Americathe decade also moaned. Then, when stock prices plummeted, catapulting the nation into its worst economic downturn, Black people knew what we still know: communities of color are always grappling with financial despair. The fact that the Great Depression was given a name just meant that enough whites were now suffering alongside us to warrant an official title. For the majority culture, the twenties can be summarized in two words: flamboyant excess. The First World War, then the bloodiest in human history, had at last come to an end, however unsatisfying its conclusion. Americans moved on from their sorrows by throwing a decade-long soiree. When I came along in 1924 (the same year, by the way, that the famous Macys Thanksgiving Day parade began), the wartime economy had already ushered in unprecedented financial prosperity. In short, Americans had more money than ever, and it was burning a hole in their pockets. Materialism grabbed ahold of the zeitgeist and would not stop squeezing. Though the abundance mostly benefited middle- and upper-class workers, it lifted the tide for all, buoying spirits and replenishing bank accounts. Wall Streeters strutted through Manhattan with extra millions in their portfolios and greater confidence in their strides. In 1920, Prohibition banned the sale and import of liquor, giving rise to bootleggers who smuggled booze across borders and into speakeasies. As the good times shimmied, hemlines rose. Young flappers, with their bobbed hair and rebellious streaks, showcased their opulence with mink stoles at lavish parties in a Great Gatsbystyle existence. During the architectural boom, skyscrapers soared in Midtown, with construction commencing on the Art Decostyle Chrysler Building in 1928. Affluence was the new American goal, and for many, the extended Bull Market put that aspiration within reach for the first time. As spending power increased, consumers laid out cash for all manner of luxuries and appliances: cars (Fords Model T had its heyday), automatic washing machines (however, those as poor as we were continued to rely on manual washboardswe never got a machine), electric refrigerators (we also never replaced our icebox with a fridge), and phonographs and radios (the day my father brought home a small RCA set and turned it on, I thought, Now why is there a voice coming out of that box?). Americans also had more to spend on leisure, flocking to see the rash of both silent films and talkies released during those years. The antics of Charlie Chaplin, with his mustache and baggy pants, drew millions to the box office. In 1927, the first talkie, The Jazz Singer, lured theatergoers into enormous movie palaces, as cinemas were then called. The movie business grew into big business. New York City earned its wings during the twenties. The five boroughs overflowed with more than five million residents, moving the city ahead of London as the worlds most populous. By boat and by rail, by foot and by any means necessary, immigrant families flooded in, carrying with them the same dreams my parents had clutched. During phase one of the Great Migration, millions of colored folks, as we were then called, moved from the rural South to New York City and other urban centers around the Northeast and Midwest. The Ku Klux Klan had raised its burning crosses with increasing height and frequency, signaling it was long past time for us to flee. Like Rebecca and Nathan in Sounder, many had worked as sharecroppers whose efforts and earnings were exploited. They escaped in search of civic and economic parity. Those who came to New York mostly settled in Harlem, then the largest Black community in the nation. Uptown West was the place to bea cultural epicenter for the United States and the Western world. The nation began tapping its toes to bebop during the Jazz Age. If jazz was Americas first musical superstar, then Harlem was that stars grand arena, the twenties its golden hour. The avenues and alleys vibrated with the sounds of improvisation, of trumpet and piano and syncopated rhythms seemingly delivered scattershot and yet masterfully arranged into a sophisticated whole. The nightclub scene was exactly thata scene. Anyone eager to cut a step while relishing big-band brilliance stopped by the Savoy Ballroom (birthplace of the Lindy Hop and land of the Charleston and Fox Trot) or the Back Room (the speakeasys entrance was hidden behind a bookcase). The Cotton Club, then on 142nd Street and Lenox Avenue, was the ultimate hot spot. Night after night during that decade and beyond, greats such as Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson, Cab Calloway, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Bessie Smith, and Jelly Roll Morton delivered hankie-lifting performances, riveting audiences with their artistic genius. Hits like Aint Misbehavin and Sweet Georgia Brown reverberated from nightclub venues and onto boulevards. Late-night jam sessions extended into the early morning hours, with revelers in zoot suits and feather boas stumbling home at daybreak. As Americans of all racial backgrounds fell under the irresistible spell of the hip new sound, jazz radically altered the musical landscape. The musics electrifying spirit could not be contained, even amid a strictly religious upbringing like my own. The city pulsated with revival, and as a child, I could feel the fervor. Exuberance danced its way up and down 125th, Harlems bustling main street. Jazz stirred at the center of a broader cultural movement, the Harlem Renaissancea profound social, intellectual, and artistic awakening in Black America that spilled over into all facets of society. Renowned philosopher Alain Locke, who penned the movements definitive text, The New Negro (1925), called the era a spiritual emancipation. James Weldon Johnson had his own description for it, a flowering of Negro literature. A historically shackled and voiceless community now demanded its full freedom and its say. It was our first opportunity in this country to define ourselves, to express our unique identity and declare our humanity. The chorus of gifted literary voices Locke gathered in The New Negrowhich includes essays, poetry, and fiction by writers such as Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and Claude McKaydelivered the movements rallying cry for Black autonomy and self-respect. Lockewho earned his doctorate at Harvard University, was the first Black Rhodes Scholar, and served as a philosophy professor at Howard Universityencouraged artists to look to Africa for inspiration. The path to Black progress, he understood, began with self-determination and a regard for our homeland heritage. The question is no longer what whites think of the Negro, he wrote in his anthology, but of what the Negro wants to do, and what price he is willing to pay to do it. Locke and his contemporary W. E. B. Du Bois, one of the most distinguished scholars of the twentieth century and the author of The Souls of Black Folk (1903), held differing views about Black aesthetic expression and its role in the movement. And yet the two shared the conviction that the arts were essential to forging a new Black identity. Du Bois founded and edited The Crisis, the flagship publication of the NAACP that gave voice to artists and intellectuals during the Harlem Renaissance and beyond. With the Black elite at its helm, the Renaissance shined its light into every corner of the artistic community, from literature and music to the performing and visual arts. Shuffle Along, which was produced, written, and performed entirely by African Americans, debuted on Broadway in 1921, showcasing the talents of Josephine Baker, Paul Robeson, and Adelaide Hall. Aaron Douglas, the eminent painter and graphic artist who produced the illustrations for The New Negro, created hundreds of images that evoked Black pride and captured the Renaissance spirit. When the financial markets collapsed on October 29, 1929, the Roaring Twenties sobered up and whimpered to a close. According to the Library of Congress, the unemployment rolls during the Great Depression swelled to 24 percent for white workers. Black workers sustained double that blow: in 1932, 50 percent of us were unemployed. These white folks are jumping out of windows, falling out like paper in the wind, my mother observed during that era. Bread lines and soup kitchens formed as Americans struggled for their next meals in a nation where, a few short years earlier, surplus had abounded. My own parents and thousands of others relied on government assistance to close the gap between what they could earn and what they needed for basic survival. Over and over in our world, we have witnessed how todays riches can become tomorrows scarcity. Wed do well to heed the lesson. In times of plenty, paucity sits by, licking its lips and awaiting its next grand appearance. The Depression was just one of a series of devastations Black people endured during the thirties. In 1931, long before the innocent Central Park Five were deprived of justice, the Scottsboro Boys, nine Black teenagers, were falsely accused in Alabama of raping two white women on a train. In a case of blatant racial bias, an all-white jury convicted the boys and sentenced eight of them to death. The following year, the US government sanctioned the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, a forty-year-long health assault on our community. Biomedical research doctors recruited impoverished Black men with the promise of free medical care. These physicians claimed to be treating the men for so-called bad blood, but in fact, they were using Blacks as guinea pigs to study the long-term effects of syphilis. Scores of our men, knowingly left untreated with syphilis long after penicillin had been discovered as a cure, suffered blindness and death. The attack on our humanity continued in 1934. That year, the Federal Housing Administration established redlining, a set of racially discriminatory real estate and bank-lending practices that barred Blacks from purchasing homes in white neighborhoodsand thus set the stage for the wealth disparity between Black and white households that remains to this day. Home and land ownership are the primary means by which Americans have historically amassed wealth, and when Blacks were locked out of bank loans and segregated into slums, we were robbed of the potential to build fortunes. President Franklin D. Roosevelts New Deal brought a measure of relief for poor Blacks, but some of its policies, such as redlining, made the New Deal a raw one for us. Its no wonder that many African Americans carry a lingering distrust of whites, even those we sincerely love and embrace. Given the horrors of our abuse in this nation, we are understandably wary. To ever heal these deep racial traumasand seldom has it felt more urgent that we dowe must acknowledge that they indeed still exist, throbbing and tender beneath the surface, spilling over, like molten rage, into the streets. As difficult as it is to recall this countrys atrocities, it is essential that every American of every color does. It is critical that we connect that centuries-long ugly history with, in our times now, a cops knee on George Floyds neck and bullets riddling Breonna Taylors body. The line from our nations original sin to its present heartache is not faint and dotted; it is solid and direct. And even when the impulse arises to cringe and look away from a system predicated on Black oppression, a system that is still doing precisely what it was designed to do, we must stare into the face of our past and examine what happened here, on our soil, much of it less than a lifetime ago, a lot of it happening now. Turning a blind eye to our history has not saved us from its consequences. My early years played out during these two wildly different decadesthe first a cultural resurrection and the next a painful reckoning. In 1939 during the last days of the Depression, Billie Holiday stepped bravely up to a microphone at Caf? Society in New Yorks Greenwich Village and sang, for the first time, Strange Fruit, a lyrical protest anthem: Southern trees bear a strange fruit Blood on the leaves and blood at the root Black bodies swingin in the Southern breeze Strange fruit hangin from the poplar trees. A bitter crop, battered and dropping. The bruised and bloodstained carcass of the Other America. * * * The nations shifting times paralleled a spirit of change in our house. After my family fell apart, the basic rhythm of our existence returned, but it swayed to a more sorrowful tempo. Melancholy hung in the air, hovered over our soup bowls at dinner, settled into the cracks of our wood floor. When my mother and father werent arguing, they didnt talk much. Dad was around a lot, often stopping by our apartment two or three afternoons a week. When he was there, he and Mom looked past one another, mostly remaining cordial and always maintaining an emotional distance. Much as I wished my family had remained intact, I was relieved to have the late-night battles in our rearview mirror. Alongside our gloom lived an uneasy peace for which wed all paid dearly. Mom thought Dad would eventually move in with the Other Woman. He didnt. The two continued their relationship for several months after my parents split, but they ultimately ended things. It perplexes me that, given the freedom to do as he pleased, my father chose not to be with that woman. Ive often wondered whether she regretted her affair with my father given that, in the end, he did not stay with her. Perhaps Dad never truly wanted to build a new life with someone but rather craved pursuing the forbidden. Mom did not file for divorce. In that era, West Indians werent too into the whole divorce business. Some would live separately for fifty years and still say my husband this and my wife that. For one thing, many couldnt afford the legal fees. And in my mothers case, all shed wanted was to get her children out of the way of a man whod suddenly gone berserk. But years later when I was in my teens, my Aunt Zora, Dads sister, said to me, The day your mother opens her bank vault is the day shell get a big surprise. Following their split, my parents continued to share a safe deposit box. My aunt had reason to believe that my father had assembled divorce papers, and rather than having them served on my mother, he put them there for her to find. Mom heard the same story from my aunt but didnt believe it. I have no idea whether my mom ever saw those papers, or if they even existed. My dad did marry another woman around 1940, but perhaps he did so illegally, without ever officially severing his first marital ties. After my parents parted ways, Mom took Dad to court for striking her. I was with my father one afternoon when he went to city hall to review some papers Mom had submitted. Before we boarded the train, we stopped at a five-and-dime store. My eyes fell on a gorgeous cameo pin. Dad, noting my desire, said to me, Do you want that pin? I nodded yes. He purchased it, in part because he relished delighting me, and probably also because he wanted to show the judge what a wonderful father he was. He fastened the pin on my collar as I beamed. On the way out, he bought me a ring with three faux rubies, one so popular then that practically every little white girl had one. As we walked up the stairs to the train, he took my hand and escorted me, as if I were ascending the stairs to my castle. Later, in court, I glided in as the prima donna I felt like. Despite how much taller Id grown, I was still my fathers little String Bean, his first girl. He constantly bought me small giftsbracelets, trinkets, toys. When Id return home and show Mom my bounty, shed muster a half-smile. Then later if she got angry with me, shed spew her resentment: This man who thinks so much of you, when I was going to the hospital to give birth to you, he had something else to do. And youre supposed to be his favorite. She often threw that one in my face. I realize now that Moms rage had little to do with my dads tenderness toward me and everything to do with how deeply hed hurt her. Still, my mothers words blistered me as much as her beatings always had. Once Dad left, she didnt whip us as frequently, mostly because she didnt have the energy. After all of her many work shifts, shed lumber through our door too exhausted to do much beyond prepare our dinner. My father contributed what money he could, but my mother bore the lions share of the financial responsibility. Dad would often complain about how gnarly his fingertips had become from painting WPA war posters around town, another job he took on. Never once did Mom breathe a complaint about her duties. With sealed lips and persevering hands, she just got up every day and did what she had to do. The year my parents separated is the year my brother, then eleven, began running away from home. Mom often said that Melrose, like me, was born restless, led by a spirit that called to him. Hed sometimes be gone for days at a time, long enough to frighten the hair off my mothers head. Shed walk the streets searching for her firstborn, her Heart String. Shed find him sitting out on a bench, staring off as if something in the distance had captured his attention. Where you been all this time? my mother would ask him as she led him home. Hed shrug and continue gazing. And what did you eat? shed prod. He once mentioned that a kind man in our neighborhood would often spot him outdoors and then return to hand him a cup of milk. For years into his adulthood, Melrose wouldnt touch milk, probably because he associated it with those distressing times. He was a troubled child, my brother. We each had our way of handling the misery of our situation, and Melrose drifted out into the streets even as he drew inward. Emily dealt with our new reality by blaming my mother. My sister, though seldom one to withhold her opinions, said little to me then about our familys tearful transition. But years later when we were grown, she revealed that shed mostly held our mother accountable. She and Melrose had slept through much of the conflict Id witnessed. What Emily did see had been enough to unnerve her. And yet, however poisonous our family dynamic was, she still desperately wanted our father there with us, at the center of it. She faulted my mother for walking away, not understanding that my father had long since made an emotional departure. In retrospect, I understand Emilys assessment not as an indictment of my mother, but as a way to cope with her own anguish. When your heart has been sliced wide open, you tend to haphazardly hurl rocks in every direction. You want someone, anyone, to ache and bleed as badly as you have. You cast stones and aspersions the way we children once did at the Other Woman. After my mother left my father, we moved to a different church. Mom wanted a fresh start away from the public disgrace. She couldnt stand the idea of my fathers infidelity following her through the pews of St. Johns as her fellow parishioners traded whispers and knowing glances. My mother called Ms. Weeks, a dear friend shed grown up with. What church do you attend in Harlem? she asked her. Ms. Weeks welcomed us to join her congregation, St. Andrews Episcopal. In practice, Reverend Byron would still serve as our spiritual shepherd, as the friend and reverend Mom could call upon if any of us so much as sneezed. But our new church became St. Andrews, then still a small parish, but now one that stands as a stunning neo-Gothic sanctuary near 127th Street and Fifth Avenue. Though the congregation was predominantly West Indian, the minister, whose name I cannot recall, was white. The Episcopal Diocese of New York had appointed him to that parish, and the church is now a city landmark. As we settled into our second church home, we were just as involved as wed been at the first one. Mom attempted to groom Emily as a pianist, hoping she might one day play in church. She also wanted to imbue all of us with some culture, as well as keep our minds and hands productively occupied. After purchasing beds for us, the next thing Mom bought was a ramshackle upright piano, which we scooted against a wall in our living room. Mom bought it from a Black lady from the neighborhood, Mrs. Wilson, who gave Emily lessons at twenty-five cents per session. But Emily didnt take to the keyboard. I want to play the violin, she told my mother, backing up to evade the dotted eye she knew was coming. When you get old enough to go to work and can buy a violin, my mother retorted, then you can get one yourself. Since my brother had no interest in the piano (he would pick up any items he could find and turn them into drumsticks . . . I tell you, if my mother hadnt steered him away from what she thought was too worldly of an artistic passion, Melrose mightve been a great drummer), I was the last remaining potential pianist in the house. After Emily quit within weeks of her first lesson, I began my lessons with Mrs. Wilson when I was ten. At twelve, I could play every hymn in our church hymnal. At fifteen, I was accompanying both our congregation and the choir. I had such a knack for it that I also taught myself how to play the organ. The piano provided me with the consolation I needed to at last give up my thumb. One day when I was around twelve, I stuck it in my mouth, pulled it out again, and stared at it for the longest time. Wait a minute, I thought. What happened to you? . . . You dont taste so good anymore. From then on, the piano served the purpose that my thumb always had: it became my solace. During long afternoons as the suns mango rays painted shadows on our walls, Id sit hunched over those chipped keys, soothing myself with the message of the hymn that has become my daily meditation: Just as I am, without one plea But that Thy blood was shed for me And that Thou bidst me come to Thee O Lamb of God, I come! I come. In a home and family uprooted, that song became my safe haven, my grace note. There, in the measures of that musical prayer, I find comfort still. 6 Unspoken PARENTS lie to their children. They misrepresent their painful truths and their personal histories. Concealing is the human way of pretending that we are who we imagine ourselves to be in the fairy tales we invent, that our lives have unfolded as we wish they would have rather than as they so wrenchingly did. My mothers falsehoods were not outright fabrications but lies of omission. She spoke little and withheld much, a restraint every bit as damaging as a barefaced falsehood. Her silence cost us both. My first menstrual period arrived the same way most things did in the Tyson householdwithout much mention. It also arrived quite earlywhen I was just nine years old. In those years, Mom had her way of keeping us entertained when school and the sun were both out. On summer weekends, shed often take us on the El from our place on the East Side all the way down to Battery Park. I lived for those rides. Id poke my head out the train window to watch the world whiz by, savoring the breeze on my cheeks, gazing into the high-rise windows, and wondering about the families I spotted. Parks, museums, zoos: Mom shuttled us all over the city and the tri-state area. One Sunday afternoon, the four of us even enjoyed an annual boat excursion, organized by our church, out at Keansburg Beach in New Jersey. Early the next morning, Mom awakened me. Go to the bathroom and wipe yourself, she said. I sleepily rubbed my eyes as she held up a square cotton rag and two long strings, each with a large safety pin attached to its end. Put this on, she said. Where? I asked. She motioned for me to tie the strings around my waist and pin them onto the rag. Moments later in the bathroom, when I stared down at my scarlet-soaked underpants, I was sure I was dying. I dont know how Mom even knew Id started my period; shed probably dreamed about it or sensed it. Id once overheard my sister mention something about menstruation and bleeding, and though I was older than Emily and should have known more than she, I wasnt at all clear what was involved. Nowadays, I cringe and shake my head in disbelief when I recall just how ill-informed I was. Maybe this is it, I thought as I wrestled with the strings and positioned the rag between my thighs. When I emerged from the bathroom, walking like a zombie, Mom was standing there with her uniform on and her pocketbook in hand, ready for work. Stay away from the boys, she told me. I will talk to you when I come back. She hasnt gotten back to me yet. In the following months, when my flow kept returning for a curtain call, I eventually figured out the whole period business on my own. A few years later, my breasts joined the puberty party. The budding chest Id had at nine was in full bloom by my twelfth birthday. That year, Mom had moved us from our place on Ninety-Eighth to 178 East 101st Street, into a two-bedroom railroad apartment near my school, Margaret Knox Junior High. One afternoon when I was playing in front of our building, procrastinating on practicing the piano, I saw my father approaching from down the street. I sprinted up a hill to meet him, and as I ran, my boobs bounced downward and upward, jiggling and screaming for support. After Dad and I embraced, he turned to me with a serious expression and said, Go upstairs and tell your mom to put a bra on you. I stared at him and then down at my sandals, mortified that Dad had noticed that my boobs needed harnessing. I didnt mention his observation to Mom, but he must have said something to her, because soon after, she arrived home from Alexanders holding an acknowledgment of my adolescence. Put this on is all she said as she handed me a white B-cup corset. I dont know why my mother hadnt purchased a bra for me before then, or whether shed planned to talk to me about this mysterious corridor Id entered. My guess is she was too embarrassed to speak about it. Also, discussing my changing body wouldve meant reckoning with the inevitable: her firstborn girl, the once-sickly child shed for so long kept close, had grown out of her arms and into a new season. We did not talk about periods or breasts. We did not talk about sex. We did not, in fact, talk about much of anything regarding adolescence. The little I knew I learned from Emily or from my friends. That left me struggling to cobble together the truth, the whole time running for the hills whenever a boy came near me. What will happen if he touches me? Why did Mom tell me to steer clear? I got one clue from Fannie Lou, a neighbor a few years older than me. One afternoon when a pregnant woman walked past us, Fannie Lou nodded toward her and then looked back at me. You know where babies come from, dont you? she asked. I nodded, not prepared to admit my ignorance. Well a baby is going to come out of that womans stomach, from where you go pee-pee, she said. I gazed at her in horror, trying to make sense of what shed revealed. A baby is coming out from between that ladys legs, I said to myself, but how did the baby get in there? No clue. And no mother willing to sit me down and explain. Dating came late in our house, and its a miracle it arrived at all. My mother was wary of strangers. Only family could be trusted, she reasoned. If anything ever happens to me, shed often say in the years after she and my father split, I know I can rely on those two men to look after my children. The men she referenced were a couple of my fathers cousins whom hed grown up with in Nevis. I was around fourteen when my mother discovered her faith had been grievously misplaced. One evening when brimstone spilled over between Mom and me about God knows what, I blurted out a secret Id been too fearful up to then to expose: one of those men had put his hands on me when I was eleven. During a moment when Mom had turned her attention toward supper, hed brushed his palm along the backside of my dress, robbing me of a sense of safety just as that white man on the street once had. Upon hearing my revelation, Mom hadnt yet picked up her jaw before Emily exclaimed, And me too! Until then, I hadnt known my sister had been touched. As outgoing as Emily was, she and I shared remarkably little about our interior worlds in those years, adopting the same code of silence our mother lived by. Moms eyes filled with horror and she disappeared into her bedroom. She never mentioned our disclosure. Ive often wondered whether she privately confronted that cousin, because after that day, we rarely saw him. From then on, she became so adamant about protecting us that she wouldnt even entertain male friends. She couldnt take the chance that another man would mess with her girls. Emily got an early start with the boys, long before Mom granted us official permission to court. My sister might have been a year and a half younger than me, but when it came to awareness, she stayed five paces ahead. From age fourteen on, she was out there living her best life. I dont think she was having sex, but she had boyfriend after boyfriend. Shed meet them wherever she went. Down the sidewalk shed waltz, with her Coke-bottle curves and her beaming smile, drawing stares from young men. My mother, who was away a lot working, had no idea Emily was running around. Also, Mom was so busy worrying over me that she took her eye off Emily. I went to see Miss Taylor this afternoon, my sister would fib when Mom questioned her whereabouts. Or I went to the store with my friend Ruby, shed claim. In actuality, shed have her tail down at the park, carrying on with her newest heartthrob. Im surprised word never got back to Mom. When Emily and I each turned fifteen, Mom at last allowed us to begin socializing with young men. She didnt refer to it as dating. She also didnt reconcile her previous insistence that I stay away from boys with her consent for me now to keep company with them. She had her reasons for loosening the reins. Her dream for Emily and me was that wed meet and one day marry nice church boysa desire made clear by her parameters. My mothers first commandment: Thou shalt go out only with a young man who is the son of a minister. All other socializing had to be with family members shed vetted. The Dores family and their four teenage boys (cousins on my mothers side of the family) were on the approved list. So were our other cousins who were around our age, the Tysons and the Swanstons, all of whom were brilliant musicians. Schubert Swanston, the eldest of four, was a piano prodigy who eventually worked with Louis Armstrong. He and his siblings played at least two instruments each, from the cello and the violin to the bass fiddle and the organ. After dinner on Sunday evenings, our family would gather for a concert at the Swanstons place near us on the East Side. Church, school, cousins: that was our protected world. Emilys parallel universe, invisible to Mom, was twice the circumference of my own. Horace Chenery was my first crush. He was a year older than me and as tall as heaven, with kind eyes. He lived a few doors down from us on the same street and attended my school. Horace didnt go to church (strikes one, two, and three in Moms book), but Horaces mom, Miss Violet, was an usher in our congregation. Violets mom, Miss Lawrence, was half-white and half-Black, and shed passed her honey complexion on to her grandchildren. Though Miss Violet was my color, Horace was quite fair, with a dreamy smile and dimples. On the day when Horace and I caught each others eye in our neighborhood, I blushed and quickly looked away. It wasnt just Horaces appearance that gave me goose pimples. As we got to know one another on long walks home from school, I felt drawn to him because of how he made me see myself, through the soft light of his adoring lens. You know, hed often tell me as we walked home from school, your face is shaped like a heart. Hed then gently trace his thumbs around my face as I snickered. I couldnt get home fast enough to study my reflection in the bathroom mirror. Could I be cute? I thought, as nappy-headed nigger memories reeled through my head. Whats he talking about, a heart? I didnt see any such shape. Yet there was no mistaking the flurry of monarchs flapping inside me when I was with him. I told no one about our budding romance, if it can be called that. We never even held hands or kissed. But Horace was the first boy who made me feel like I might be attractive, just maybe. I also fell for his brilliance. In those years, I was an admirer of the mind. That is true even now. If you can tell me something I dont know, youve got me. Horace was intuitive and smart, an A student who shared my curiosity and affirmed my inquisitiveness. When Id ask Why? hed meet my question with another. Have you been to the Empire State Building? he once asked me. Even with all of our familys traipsing around the city, Mom hadnt yet taken us to view the Midtown marvel, completed in 1931. With his eyes dancing, Horace recounted every detail of the structure, which was erected in a race to build the worlds tallest building (an honor it held for forty years, until the World Trade Centers North Tower soared higher in 1970). And he was as sensitive as he was bright, his eyes often brimming with tears of emotion when hed share stories from his boyhood. Our puppy love mightve become a full-grown poodle if Mom hadnt cut off its nourishment. One afternoon, Melrose saw Horace and me walking down our street together. I realized hed noticed us but thought nothing of it. That changed when, later that evening, Mom approached me with a sentence I knew meant trouble. Come here, I want to talk to you, she said. I took a place at our kitchen table and she sat down across from me. Now this Horace Chenery business, she said, it has to stop. I dont want you seeing him anymore. Im not seeing him, I retorted. What do you mean? Right then, my brother rolled into the kitchen with his public service announcement: You and Horace were on 101st Street together today, he said. I glared at Melrose, not sure why hed ratted me out to Mom, perhaps out of some (annoying) instinct to shelter me the way our parents always had. Well I live on 101st Street and so does Horace, I said. Where else was I supposed to walk? Youre supposed to walk anyplace but next to him, Mom shot back. I dont ever want to see you talking to that boy again. Horace may not have been a ministers son, but he was an upstanding young manwhich, as I saw it, shouldve earned him boyfriend clearance. Mom saw it differently, and in a house more dictatorship than democracy, I knew not to question her mandate. Also, giving her lip wouldve led to further restriction on my social agenda. I spotted Horace from my window the next day, just as he swung around the corner onto our block. Mom was at work and Emily and Melrose werent around, but my neighbor, Elizabeth, was visiting me. When Horace got close to my building, he looked up and waved at us. Elizabeth, who didnt know Horace and I were sweet on one another, waved back at him and grinned. You know him? I asked her. No, she said, but Ive seen him around here and hes cute. Thats when I got an idea. I called out to Horace, shouting for him to wait. Elizabeth and I dashed downstairs and met him in front of the apartment. Out of breath, I scanned our surroundings to be sure tattle-snitch Melrose and Mom were nowhere in sight. I then turned toward Horace. I have to tell you something, I said. What is it? he asked. My mother and my brother dont want me to see you anymore, I said, hardly pausing between each word. He frowned. What do you mean? he asked. I cant really explain it, I told him. I just cant see you anymore. I stared at the ground and then looked up at Elizabeth. But I want to introduce you to my friend, I said to Horace. Shes really nice. Youll like her. For a long moment, none of us said anything as the awkwardness of the situation hung in the air. Horace, befuddled and yet clear that there was no more information to be gathered from me, finally spoke. Well look, he said to me, this has nothing to do with us. Then as the perfect gentleman he was, Horace warmly greeted Elizabeth. Im sure shed been standing there wondering what the devil shed walked into. That was in the summer of 1939. Horace and Elizabeth dated throughout high school and eventually married and raised a family together. Both of them, my maiden crush and my neighbor, are long gone now. And all of these years later, I am left with questions, with specks of wistfulness and regret in the spaces between them. How might my life have turned out if Id stayed with the beau whod stolen my heart even as he traced its shape with his thumbs? What if I, rather than my friend, had been the one to marry Horace? What would have happened if Id defied my mother and secretly followed my inclination? I can only ponder. After Horace had been forced from my world, there entered another young mansomeone who, in the view of my mother, was an ideal match for me. Our team of pastors often hosted gatherings in their homes for members, and youd better believe Mom ensured that Emily and I turned up at all of them. Id like you to meet someone, one of the ministers said to me one evening during the party. I stared at the pastor as if hed just announced the Second Coming. I was seventeen then, but I was no less reserved than Id been a decade earlier. The pastor nodded in the direction of a young man who approached. This is my son, Kenneth, he said. Id of course seen Kenneth around church, but in our large congregation, he and I had never been formally introduced. I smiled and straightened the collar of the velvet dress Mom had sewn for me, just for this occasion. I didnt know what to say, which is why I stood there and gawked. Kenneth had a close-cropped fro and dewy chocolate skin, with a smile stretching from ear to ear. He wore a three-piece suit, with a row of gold buttons lined up vertically along the vest. At more than six feet tall, he towered above me, just as my dear Horace had. While sipping soda, we traded stories. Hed just completed his last year of high school. I was still a student. He was working as a security guard and planned to become a police officer, and his older brother, a lieutenant, was already stationed overseas ahead of the Second World War. I knew absolutely nothing about war, aside from the one that had destroyed my household. Years earlier, Kenneths mother had died in childbirth, and hed been raised by his father. He now had his own apartment on Morningside Avenue in Harlem. I still lived under my mothers roof and rulership. Days later, Kenneth came by our apartment. The pastor had told Mom that hed introduced the two of us, and Mom met him at the door. So I hear youre the son of a minister, she said with a smile bright enough to light up Times Square. Yes, Miss Fredericka, he said, beaming. And I, recognizing the absolute delight on their faces, knew an unspoken understanding had been reachedan agreement not requiring my consent. * * * I may not have had much of a voice during adolescence, but I did have aspirations. Given my talent for the piano and organ, I initially thought Id become a concert musician, a dream my mother birthed on my behalf. My goal shifted the year I was fifteen. By then, I was taking lessons from a lady by the name of Miss Mann. Her eldest son was the organist at Convent Avenue Baptist Church in Harlem, and Id sometimes accompany the choir or play for the congregation there. During a concert one Sunday, I played, from memory, Poet and Peasant, a fifteen-page overture composed by Franz von Supp?. At the close of the piece when I stood and bowed at the warm applause, I said to myself, I will never ever do this again. Sure enough, on that afternoon I walked away from the piano, and it was the last day I set my fingers on ivory. Not only had the Franz piece worn me out, the piano demanded far too much of my time. Id wake up early to rehearse for two hours before school, only to return to that hard bench before bed. All that money wasted! my mother fussed. In hindsight, Im stunned she let me quit, however insistent I was. Mom continued in her mission to rear us with some culture, and by then, I felt Id soaked up my share. By age sixteen, Id moved on to hairdressing. For years, Mom had her hair pressed by a woman who lived two blocks from us, Miss Jones. (How on earth can I remember these names? No wonder I have a headache . . . so many details in my head!) After Miss Jones passed, her hot comb got handed down to me. I was good enough at pressing and curling that I turned it into a little business, a way to earn my own money in a house where cash was scarce. On Friday nights, Id pack my bag with the hot comb and bobby pins and curling irons and begin making my way around to the homes of all the sisters in the church. My road show continued on Saturdays. Then on Sundays, Id peer out across the sanctuary to see my handiwork on display, in pew after pew of fresh presses and pin curls. Horace had convinced me I was cute, and my hot comb contributed to my vanity. I stayed by the bathroom mirror, running between there and the stove as I laid down my edges and pressed out my bangs. All that primping made me constantly late for class, because no way was I showing up at school with my hair all over the place. I had a different style for every day of the week, from deep waves on Monday to a chignon on Friday. I pressed the life out of my strands every morning, restoring them to order after Id slept them into a mess the night before. Once when I strode into French class, tardy as usual, my teacher, Miss Byrnes, lifted an eyebrow. Cicely, why cant you get here on time? she asked. I pointed to my hair. Well, she said, smirking, one day that hair is going to put you on the top of the world. Neither of us could have known just how prescient she was. My shyness began melting away during junior high and high school, but only a touch. In eighth grade, I served as secretary of the student body. I also auditioned for the class opera and was somehow chosen, but I sang so softly during rehearsals that I got fired because I was too reticent to project my voice. Even now, I find it impossible to speak from my core until I find a characters voice within myself. In high school, I was slightly more outgoing, thanks to Horaces loving perception of me. But even in my brief moments of extroversion, there lived a quiet, questioning girl inside. At one point during my teen years, I thought Id become a psychologist because I was fascinated by people, by what made them do and say the things that they did. I wanted so badly to get inside their minds. But then, clutching a pressing comb, I gradually became more interested in what grew out of their pores. Everyone, including me, predicted that Id become a professional hairdresser. This was years before acting got ahold of meand boy, has that allowed me to get inside some heads! Emily also earned her own money. Having inherited our mothers skill as a seamstress, she landed a job at a lingerie factory, sewing gorgeous and expensive slips, underwear, and bras. Thats when our arguing began. Id sneak into her bureau and pull out one of her lacy camisoles, tie it into a knot so it would fit me (or string a ribbon around my waist to cinch it up), and wear it beneath my clothes. After school, Id race home to shove the camisole back in the drawer before Emily could discover it was missing. She usually caught me, and when she did, an explosion ensued. Stay out of my things! shed yell. Id smile and scamper off, with no intention of keeping my hands to myself. That lingerie was far too pretty to lie there unworn. Melrose worked as well, at any job he could hustle up on the streets. For a time, he had a job at a bagel shop, and in the evenings once his shift was done, hed come through our apartment door carrying fresh-baked bagels, with an aroma tantalizing enough to pull us out of bed for a taste. In addition to our side hustles, we of course had our chores. My job as resident window washer remained intact throughout my teens. Every weekend, Id climb through each window opening and balance myself on the ledge, with no fire escape or guardrails to prevent me from toppling onto the pavement five floors below. Decades later when that building was named after me, I returned there and stared up at that window in disbelief. I still get chills thinking about all those Saturdays I risked my life in service of spotless glass. Lord Jesus, how did I do it? I could have easily fallen into an urban grave. God literally had my back, just as he does now. My father still lived close by, and I saw him frequently. The year I was sixteen, my Aunt Zora, Dads sister, hosted a party with her social lady friends and some family. Dad took me along. The two of us were off in a corner, catching up. He had his back up against a chest of drawers, with his arms loosely draped around me as he stood behind me. Cicely, he said, why dont you come over here? I swiveled around and looked at him. Dad, why are you talking to me like Im on the other side of the room? I asked. Oh, so you think youre the only Cicely in the world? he said, laughing. He nodded toward a tall, elegant Black woman in a far corner. Thats the lady youre named after, he said. As soon as I stepped through our apartment door that evening, I gave Mom the news. I met my namesake today, I announced. What kind of foolishness you talking, child? she said. I told her about my fathers confession. I always knew I wasnt named after no little girl next door, I told her. I just had a feeling. Mom stared in my direction but did not speak. Did you hear me? I said. I met the lady I was named after. My mother remained silent. Even after she and my dad had separated, even after hed raised his palm and bruised her spirit, she never spoke negatively of him to us, other than her occasional reminder that Willie Tyson, as she always referred to him, had refused to accompany her to the hospital when I was born. Despite how my dad had hurt my mother, he was still our father, still the man she insisted we respect. When she did mention my dads shortcomings, she usually did so indirectly, by folding in his transgressions with all those of his gender whod been unfaithful. These mens, shed say in the plural. They no damn good. When I recounted the days happenings for a third time, Mom leaned back in her rocker and uttered a phrase she used often. You do well, she said, shaking her head. You do well. That was her way of saying, So you finally know something you didnt know, huh? Well good for you. What youre claiming might be true, but Ill never admit it. It was also her way of urging you past an uncomfortable conversation and back to the Land of Mute. Youre dismissed. The end. A period and a closed subject. You do welland youd do best to move on. * * * Kenneth had been on my mothers approved list even before shed seen him. He checked the only box that seemed to matter to her: he was the offspring of a reverend. At the party, when Kenneth had asked whether he could take me out, Id agreed, knowing in my heart that he wasnt for me. He was respectful and attractive, but in his presence, I felt none of the magnetism that had pulled me toward Horace. That much I knew. All else, my mother would decide. Urged on by Mom, Kenneth and I began officially seeing one another. One afternoon, he showed up, unannounced, for a visit. Because I hadnt been expecting him, I was wearing one of my mothers old housedresses. Id also just unbraided my hair, and it was scattered all over my head. After Kenneth greeted me, I quickly excused myself to tidy up, feeling embarrassed that hed seen me in such a state. When I returned, Emily had turned on the radio for our daily episode of Amos n Andy. An announcer interrupted the program: Pearl Harbor has been bombed, he said. I stared at Kenneth, who sat expressionless on the couch. Did you hear that? I asked him. Were at war! Kenneth looked straight ahead, his eyes dazed. At war? he finally said. Hed heard the announcer as clearly as I had, but the news didnt immediately sink in: the conflict overseas had at last thundered onto our shores. Not long after, my personal world was likewise overturned. I dont remember everything about the day that permanently ended my childhood, that finished it off with a painful and lasting punctuation mark. The moments I do recall, many of them now dim and faded, unfolded in slow motion. It was late spring, toward the end of my junior year in 1942. With Moms permission, Id planned to see Kenneth at his apartment around four oclock that afternoon, following school. I want you home by seven, she said. I nodded and left. This wasnt my first visit to Kenneths place. Over the months, as hed charmed my mother with his impeccable manners, with his Ms. Tyson this and his Ms. Tyson that, shed been increasingly permissive of our spending time together on our own. I think she was more smitten with Kenneth than Id ever likely be, in love with the idea of our possible future together. Our evening progressed pleasantly, like many others before: we sat on his living room sofa, talking about the news of the day and listening to the radio. After wed been together for a while, I glanced at my watch: 6:20. I have to go, I said, imagining the hell Id catch if I returned home even one minute late. I pulled on my jacket and walked to the door. He followed me. Why do you have to leave so soon? he said playfully, resting his hand over mine. You should stay a little longer. I smiled and he slid my palm off the knob. He turned me around and pulled me toward him, my back resting against the door. He slowly unbuttoned my coat. He then gently began kissing me, first on my forehead, then on my neck, and finally on my lips. As our tongues intertwined, he pulled me even closer, pressing his aroused body into mine, running his palms along my breasts, breathing heavily with desire. Our caressing grew more intense and he lifted my dress. I recoiled slightly, but before I could back away, he was inside me. He immediately exploded. With my thighs trembling, I looked at my watch again. It was 6:40. I really do have to go now, I said, straightening my dress and rebuttoning my coat. As I grappled internally with what had just occurred, he and I said nothing, and I left. On the bus ride home, I replayed the scene in my head. Did we just have sex? Is that what that was? I honestly was not sure. Like my period and all other topics of a sensitive nature, Mom had never had a forthright conversation with me about intercourse. I thought of the pregnant woman my friend Fannie Lou had pointed out on the street. Was this how a baby got inside of her stomach? Maybe, but I was not certain. I thought of a photo Id once seen in a book of a naked couple having intercourse on a bed. Kenneth and I couldnt have had sex, I reasoned. We were standing up with most of our clothes on. And though I didnt fully understand the mechanics of sex, I did sense wed done something my mother would have prohibited. Maybe this is what shed meant when shed told me, at age nine, Stay away from the boys. A small part of me felt scared that perhaps wed stumbled across a red line I hadnt known was there. But a much larger part of me exhaled, grateful that Id stopped short of engaging in what I imagined sex to bean act carried out horizontally. Nothing couldve happened, I kept telling myself. You cannot have intercourse standing up. By the time I arrived home exactly at seven oclock, Id convinced myself I had nothing to be concerned about. Nature had a different take. A few weeks later when my period went missing, Mom, fearing the likely but praying for the improbable, booked a doctors appointment. After Id been examined and given a pregnancy test, the doctor pulled my mother aside in the hallway. Your daughter is pregnant, I heard him tell her through the half-open door. Shes probably almost a month along. Silence. In the exam room, my heart hammered away in my chest as my brain raced. Pregnant? How could I be pregnant? Kenneth and I didnt do anything for me to get pregnant. We didnt even lie down! Mom returned to the room and stared at me, aware by my stone face that Id overheard the doctor. A tear escaped down her cheek. If only youd waited, she whispered, her voice trembling. And now, dear God, Willie Tyson is going to kill me for his child. After Mom and Dad had separated, my father had often said to her, If anything bad ever happens to my Sis, Ill kill you. My circumstance, in the view of my religiously raised parents, indeed qualified as something bad. Their seventeen-year-old daughter, herself still a child in many ways, was going to become an unwed mother. I sat numb in the cold exam room, vulnerable in my thin blue paper gown and sock feet. I could not comprehend what Id just been told, just as Kenneth hadnt been able to process that our country was under attack. Id heard the doctor. And yet the reality of what hed said felt inconceivable to me, entirely surreal, as if he was talking to some other girl in some other life, while I simply listened in. I dressed as Mom waited in the lobby. Sitting side by side on the number 6 train toward home, neither of us spoke. 7 Ground Shifts NEAR the close of my senior year, the principal called me to her office. What is this? she asked, holding up a folded paper. I instantly recognized it as an invitation to my daughters christening and wondered how shed gotten hold of it. I shrugged. So is it true? she pressed. Do you have a child, Cicely? Seeing no end run around the evidence, I nodded. Yes, I whispered. Its true. She lowered the invitation and sighed. Well then Im sorry, she said, but we cannot allow you to graduate from this school. I stood there staring blankly at her, hoping shed amend her ruling with an exception. But her judgment was final. Only four weeks before I was to receive my diploma, just one measly month before graduation, the secret Id carried beneath my dress had now somehow made its way onto my principals desk. And as a result, she and the schools administrative staff disregarded my whole senior year and made me repeat that coursework at the schools night program. The year before, when I first learned that I was expecting, the resulting torrent of emotion nearly took me under. I was confounded about how Id ever gotten into such a predicament and fearful about my path forward. Yet amid the confusion about how Id become pregnant, amid the immense sadness I felt about how Id let myself and my parents down, there emerged in me an unmitigated resolve: I would earn my diploma. That was, for me, as much a matter of practicality as it was of honor. I wanted to complete my course and stand proud at the finish line. If I had to keep my belly undercover in order to march across that graduation stage, I was determined to do so. The concealment turned out to be effortless: I had no discernible baby bump at the start of my senior year, nor did I ever develop a large stomach. Before the pregnancy, Id been a stick at five feet four inches and around ninety-seven pounds. Six months into gestation, my belly had grown only to the size of a small cantaloupe, one mostly unnoticeable beneath my clothes. My principal and teachers had no idea I was pregnant, nor did my classmates. My own mother could hardly tell. That baby must be standing up inside of you, shed often say. I wore the same A-line, button-down dress to school that fall as I wore to the hospital on the day I gave birth the following February. If Emily and Melrose noticed I was pregnant early on, they did not mention it, and frankly, I did not want to talk about it, did not want to acknowledge my shame aloud. Even once they eventually overheard the news from our mother, my sister and brother and I never discussed it. Their sorrowful gazes, from my eyes to my stomach and back to my eyes, said plenty. When you get pregnant during adolescence, you grow up in the space of two minutes. In minute one, your feet are dangling from an exam table as you hold your breath and wait. In minute two, all wondering is replaced with reckoning, all equivocating with the definitiveness of the doctors words. And in that instant, you are no longer a girl, wandering and curious and innocent. You are, by proof of a urine sample and by declaration of a physician, ushered to a doorway labeled Parenthood. Through that entrance is an uncertain future, filled with adult anxieties and responsibilities. All at once, your center of gravity shifts from me to us. Your existence is no longer just about you, but rather about this defenseless child who will rely on your strength as a source for his or her own. That is the state I found myself in on the day of my appointment: half-clothed and glassy-eyed, seated at the corner of life as Id known it and a frightening forever. Upon learning I was pregnant, I spent two full weeks just trying to figure out how it had happened. Sex, as Id misunderstood it, necessitated pleasure. What Id experienced was the swift ascent of my hemline and a three-second burst of warm liquid. Years later, my friend Maya Angelou would describe her own pregnancy this way: When I was sixteen, a boy in high school evinced interest in me, so I had sex with him, just once, she wrote. And after I came out of that room, I thought, Is that all there is to it? My goodness, Ill never do that again! Next thing she knew, she was expectingwhich is precisely how I felt. I hadnt even lain down, for Gods sake, much less experienced any kind of euphoria. Id been cheated out of intimacys pleasure ride, yet I was still required to pay its full entrance fee. That is what happens when parents think theyre protecting their children by withholding the truth. They are in fact exposing them to heartache. There was never any question Id keep the child. In my family and church community, abortion was not even a thought or conversation. With that consideration off the table, I moved right along to the next: whether Kenneth and I would marry. In many ways, that question had also already been answered, because Mom had long since decided that Kenneth was the One for me. The fact that he and I now had a child on the way simply accelerated that eventuality. Just as my mother had pressed me to go out with Kenneth, she likewise demanded that we marry that December. Im not signing any papers for you to marry before youre grown, she murmured. Well wait till youre eighteen. When Maya had first told her mom she was expecting, her mother asked her calmly, Do you love the boy . . . and does he love you? When Maya answered no, her mother said, Then theres no sense in ruining three lives. If only things had gone that way in the Tyson house. At the time, I experienced my moms insistence that I marry Kenneth as an extension of her autocracy, her maintenance of a control she felt slipping away. Looking back on it, however, I recognize her behavior for what I believe it was: an attempt to redeem herself, as well as to redirect the plotline of our familys generational narrative. No unmarried daughter of mine is going to bring a child here, my mother said to me repeatedly. And yet her mother, Mary Jane, had done exactly that. She and my grandfather, Charles, were not married when they became intimate, and by the time Mary Jane discovered she was pregnant, Charles had been killed at sea, his fishing boat overturned by a violent storm near Nevis. Years later and a world away, my parents of course traded vows, and Id always assumed theyd done so long before welcoming Melrose. Emily, who sat down one day and did the math, eventually steered me to the truth: my dad and mom married after conceiving my brother. And then, to my mothers heartbreak, her daughter had unknowingly repeated the very familial pattern shed longed to end. I think now that my mom pressured me to marry not just to spare me a public disgrace, but as a penance for her own and her mothers choices. Her adamance was a kind of peace offeringa way to restore her purity in the eyes of a heavenly Father she felt shed disappointed. I dont remember Kenneths reaction, or even my own, when I first told him I was pregnant. Im sure I mumbled it and then devolved into tears, probably backing out of the room as he absorbed the news. My mothers conversation with the pastor, her confrontation of Kenneth, her declaration to him that we must wedit all feels as illusory to me now as it did in the summer of 1942. Our spirits have a way of dulling the traumatic, of blunting painful memories to lessen their ache. I do recall that Kenneth wanted our child, however unexpected her arrival. I also remember that he never proposed to me. He didnt need to. Our future had been cemented on the evening hed lifted my dress. Following my pregnancy, the only thing left to do was repent of our unholy act by embracing holy matrimony. I held both of us responsible for our situation, but truthfully, I blamed him more than I did myself. He hadnt exactly forced himself on me, but he had asserted his will in place of mine, let loose on the fertile ground of my ignorance. That is how I felt then. I see now that my perspective was my way of coping with a world upended for us both. I wasnt there when my father heard about my pregnancy. That whole summer, I was so busy hiding from him, as well as from all of the nonsense I knew might occur, that I didnt know who was saying whator whether Mom broached the topic with him. In an extended family as large as ours, where news spreads more easily than butter on hot cornbread, I knew hed eventually hear it from someone. If Mom didnt tell him, one of his siblings or cousins certainly would, which is what happened. I managed to avoid seeing my father for the entirety of my pregnancy. Given that his previously frequent visits came to an abrupt end, it was clear he was avoiding me as much as I was him. Perhaps he was attempting to spare his heart the dagger that would eventually have to land. My first trimester was excruciating. I did not suffer from morning sickness, yet I could not escape a burgeoning sense of remorse. My mother had her way of deepening my regret. Whenever wed pass a department store window, shed repeat the refrain shed first spoken in the doctors office. If only youd waited, Sis, shed say, shaking her head as she eyed the ornate white gowns. If youd just waited. If only youd told me the truth, Id be thinking. For years, Mom had dreamed of hosting a big wedding for Emily and me. Yet shed been so consumed with the notion of a day, of an elaborate one-time affair, that shed neglected to explain the basic facts of life. My eighteenth birthday arrived on December 19. Just after Christmas and just before the start of my last school term, Kenneth and I took our places at the altar for a small ceremony in our church. His father officiated. My own father did not attend. I learned later that Mom hadnt invited him, and if Im honest, I was relieved he wasnt there, thankful to escape his mournful gaze. From the pews, a small group of our family members looked on and wept throughout the service. Everyone cried, tears of lament disguised as those of happiness. It felt more like a funeral than a wedding. As I stood at the altar in my pale blue gown, my pregnant belly still hardly perceptible, I cried because I did not want to be married. It didnt matter that Kenneth loved me. It didnt matter that he was a respectable young man, which he was. He had not shirked his responsibility to me, to us, to our unborn child. Hed even welcomed our nuptials. And yet despite how he mightve felt or behaved, plain and clear, I was not ready for the commitment. Repeating my vows felt like surrendering my freedom. Just as I was beginning to find out who I was, this marriage placed a chokehold on the discovery. With the exchange of our gold bands and the declaration by the reverend, I was no longer Cicely, the autonomous. I had become a wife, an underling to be commanded and shepherded. The day after the wedding, I moved out of my mothers apartment and into Kenneths place. Though Id relocated, I never truly left Moms home. Kenneth worked the night shift as a security guard. Since I was so close to delivering, my mother insisted I stay with her in the evenings. She wanted to keep close watch over me, just as shed been doing since the day I was born. One day in February after arriving at Moms apartment, I felt unusually energetic. Powered by my burst of vigor, I cleaned her apartment from stem to stern, pulling down the drapes and pulling off the sheets, throwing everything in the bathtub so I could scrub it clean on the washboard. By the time my mother arrived home from work, I was wiped out. I think Ill go home now, I told her. Kenneth is off tonight. No you cant go home now, she said, glancing at the clock. Its after nine. Its too late for you to be out in the streets. You should stay here. Practically before she could complete that sentence, I was laid out on her bed. A couple of hours later, I got up to use the bathroom. When I lumbered back to bed and groaned, Mom awakened. Whats the matter? she asked. Well I have to pee, I told her, but I cant seem to go. She sat up. Put on your clothes right now, she said. My sudden urge to clean and to nest, along with the inability to urinate, told her my labor could be imminent. For what? I asked. I said put on your clothes, she snapped. I did as she instructed, and moments later, we were out on a steep stretch of Lexington Avenue, trying to hail a taxi in snow that felt like it was up to our waists. On the icy uphill sidewalk, my mother slipped. There I was, with my pregnant belly and my freezing palms, struggling to pull her up off the ground. Once I did, we still could not find a cab. In the pitch black, we walked for the longest time before finally finding a ride to Metropolitan Hospital. We walked through the doors at 4 a.m. Thus began the wait. Hour after hour, nurses paraded in and out of my room, checking to see how much Id dilated, as I lay there, wishing Id stayed home a while longer. Finally, at 6:30 that evening when my water broke, doctors began debating the best method of delivery. My birth canal was so tiny, they feared Id be ruptured when the baby came out. Lets cut her, I heard one of them say. That was my cue to faint. I regained consciousness just in time to see them taking my daughter out of me. Even before I saw her face, I heard her, because boy, she was already sucking away on that thumb! As the nurses stitched me up, the doctor laid my six-pound, three-ounce angel on my chest, her body warm, her head as bald as mine once had been, her heart pattering in sync with my own. Upon hearing I was in labor, Kenneth scrambled from work to the hospital but didnt make it in time for our daughters birth. When he did arrive, he came in holding a red tin can of celebratory chocolates, handing them to me with a kiss and then cradling our baby girl in the crease of his elbow. I stayed in the hospital for five days, with Kenneth at my side for much of it. Mom was there as well. When you were born, she fondly recounted, those nurses waited on me hand and foot for an entire week. It was the best Christmas Id ever had because I didnt have to lift a finger to cook for anyone. As I lay there in bed, nursing my sweet newborn, I likewise relished the sacredness of the pause, the stillness at the start of this thrilling yet terrifying passageway. Mom encouraged me to call my daughter Miriam, the name shed wanted to give me. I instead gave her a name that I chose, and in these pages, I will call her Joan. Kenneth wanted us to take our daughter home by taxi, but I refused, knowing just how little money we had saved. Hed been working back-to-back shifts, socking away all he could for our family. Yet even with his diligence, we were barely making rent. Soon after Kenneth and I brought Joan home, I finally saw my father. He stopped by our apartment when my husband was at work. One look at my dads face told me that, without question, hed known about the pregnancy for months. In his eyes, I noticed not a glimmer of judgment or reprimand, but one of recognition. His String Bean, his heartthrob, was no longer a baby girl but a mother herself. He never addressed my unwed pregnancy outright, abiding by the same rule of silence that had always governed our family. And surprisingly, he also never confronted Kenneth about getting me pregnant. I think my father was more sad than angry; the pain of the situation rendered him silent, not combative. On the evening of his visit, he just looked at me for a long moment, the unspoken truth permeating the air between us. So whats her name? he said, smiling and reaching for his first grandchild. Joan, I said. Subject forever closed. Two weeks after Id given birth, I returned to school, my breasts heavy with milk, my resolve to graduate undiminished. By day, I kept my head in a math textbook while Kenneth cared for Joan, until I could race home during my lunch break to nurse her. Id then pump fresh milk to leave for her in the refrigerator. As soon as the last bell of the school day sounded, I was out the door again, eager to get home to my sweetheart as Kenneth prepared to leave for work. I continued that routine for weeks, until the afternoon in May when my principal cut short my momentum with her discovery. I hadnt planned to christen my daughter right away. I wanted to wait until summer, after my schooling was complete. But of course, my mother replaced my desire with her mandate: Joan would be dedicated during a service at our church that May. My mother planned the whole ceremony and even mailed out the invitations, one of which landed in the hands of a woman my father had previously had an affair with. That womans son happened to be a fellow student in my science class. Hed been the one to disclose my secret to the principal. On the day I was summoned to her office, it made no difference that I stood within shouting distance of my diploma. What mattered was the schools strict policy: students were not permitted to indulge in what was considered adult behavior. Im sure some of my classmates were sexually active, but the proof was in the pregnancy. And once it was revealed that I was a mother, that revelation immediately revoked my status as a student and made that years credits null and void. Devastating as this news was, I felt undeterred in my quest to earn my diploma. For me, those months were the most painful of my young motherhood. The night campus was all the way down on Eighteenth Street, an hours ride by train. As much as I yearned to move beyond my mothers rule, I was also desperate for her help, especially since Kenneth worked nights. Together, he and I decided that Mom would watch Joan in the evenings while I attended classes. In the fall of 1943, when Joan was about seven months old, our grand rotation commenced. I took a job as a part-time clerk, working from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. while Kenneth cared for our daughter. Id then hurry home to feed and change her before carrying her off to my mothers apartment, where shed stay until I returned in the late evening. The moment I walked through the door, Joan would begin wailing for me, her arms outstretched from the edge of her crib. How agonizing it was for me to be away from my baby, to hear her weeping when I returned, to see her little face flooded with tears. It is why I often now tell young people to slow down and think, to use protection, to consider whats involved when you bring a human being into this world. It is a heartbreaking thing for children to have children. These kids, they just go off and have babies, and they have no idea of the commitment involved, how their paths will be as irrevocably altered as mine was. Until you are standing in the responsibility of parenting, you cannot truly understand how it shifts your lifes terrain. At the close of 1943, I earned my diploma. My precious Joan was nearly a year old, with a full head of thick hair and a laugh that melted me. I had a child I cherished in a life I never planned on. And by Godand by perseveranceI had completed high school. * * * As Kenneth and I settled into married life, a road of tedium and regret stretched before me. And when I peered ahead at that path, extending miles into the distance, I felt an enormous urge to retch. The ending to my life story, it seemed, had already been written, before Id even had a chance to live it. I hadnt ever been in love with Kenneth. Our union did nothing to change that. In fact, I had no desire to be married, period, and Im sure he could feel that. My resentment pervaded our every exchange, spilled over into the long bouts of silence between us. I wanted to do right by our daughter, as well as to be respectful of my husband and our vows. And yet the thought of pretending, of living out my mothers dream instead of discovering my own, felt utterly soul-destroying. When Joan was two years old, I left Kenneth. And following the afternoon I cleared out of the apartment, I never saw him again. He of course called over to my mothers place, looking for me, desperate to know how he could mend whatever was broken between us. Im sure she mustve told him what my actions had made apparent: I was done. Ahead of my departure, I did not tell Kenneth I was leaving the marriage. I knew it would shatter him, and it did. Yet it was a choice I felt strongly I needed to make, and if Id told him, he wouldve tried to dissuade me. We did speak by phone after I left, and he pleaded for me to reconsider, begged me to allow him to remain part of our daughters world. But I was firm in my decision that we separate entirely. Kenneth was a good man, but it wouldnt have done either of us a favor for me to languish in a relationship my spirit could not take. Maya Angelous mother had it right: I wouldve ruined three lives. Even as I fled, I knew I was trading one metaphorical prison for another. With no place else to go, I had to return to my mothers apartment. I could not yet stand on my own financial feet, and to Moms credit, she graciously welcomed me back. But once that short honeymoon wore off, we began clashing. She wanted to do things her way, to raise Joan as she saw best. And I, newly emboldened by my role as mother and head of my family, resisted her domination. Yet because I relied on Mom to look after Joan while I worked, there was only so much arguing I could do. That left me seething internally. Our family doctor recognized my rising blood pressure and mounting stress and mentioned it to my father. Cicely is going to have a nervous breakdown if she stays in that house, he told my dad. You need to get her out of there. After Id been with Mom for two years, Dad heeded the doctors warning and moved me in with his sister, my Aunt Zora, in Mount Vernon. Between my aunt and other nearby family, my village rose up to help me care for Joan while I pieced together a living for us. On the weekends or anytime I could manage to get off work, I took my daughter everywhere with me, wheeling her around in the carriage Id splurged on. In the newspapers, Id seen images of well-to-do London mothers with their fancy buggies, complete with oversized hoods. Though such strollers became scarce during wartime, I would not rest until I hunted down a used one. My determination was not about necessity. It was about gifting my beloved princess with royal treatmentthe same sense of nobility and worth my parents had bestowed upon me. When Joan was around four years old, I began work as a legal secretary at Sapinsley and Lucas, a law firm at 551 Fifth Avenue. The following year, when she was old enough for kindergarten, I enrolled her in the Little Brown Schoolhouse, a small private school in the Bronx founded by Helen Meade. I could not truly afford it, but I worked overtime and took on side jobs, emptying my financial cupboards in order to cover the cost. I wanted the comfort of knowing my daughter was in excellent hands, that shed receive an education superior to my own. Nearly all parents I know can sum up their aspirations for their children in one word: better. That is what my mom and dad wanted for me, Emily, and Melrose when they eked out a life for us in the slums, and it is what I wanted for Joan. It is why I rose before sunup to prepare her for school and walked with her, our fingers intertwined, to the bus stop. Its why I worked steadfastly to keep her in that school. The notion of better was the bedrock for my every choice during Joans earliest years. From the time she was a baby and into her toddlerhood, I treated her like a real-life doll, decking her out in frilly dresses, doting over her as my father had me. No item was too luxurious for my princess, no bedtime story spared. In the land of make-believe child rearing, that world of pretend parenting ever on display in the media landscape, dressing Joan up was my way of being the Good Mom, the ever-present and adoring nurturer. I realize now that it was also my attempt at atoning, of blotting out my past choices with the fresh ink of redemption, just as my own mother had sought to do. 8 Divinely Guided I AM a firm believer in divine guidance. Above all, I am Gods child, cradled in his unfailing arms, guided by his infinite wisdom. Everything that is happening in my life is unfolding exactly as God has intended. There are no coincidences. Rather, there is a loving Savior who holds my future as securely as he does my life, and at every juncture, he is whispering his will, showing me the way. In 1954, the year I turned thirty, I followed the Fathers voice down a path that both thrilled and unnerved me. Much on the planet had changed by then. The winter after I had Joan, the Second World War raged on overseas, with Allied forces eventually knocking the opposition to its knees during the Battle of Stalingrad in 1943. That same year, the Tuskegee Airmen, the all-Black group of pilots who defied Air Force leaders belief that Blacks were intellectually incapable of becoming aviators, bravely flew their first combat mission in Italy. Here in the United States during that era, the color line showed the slightest sign of fading: in 1944, Reverend Adam Clayton Powell Jr., then the pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church, became the first Black from New York elected to Congress, standing tall for his Harlem community in the House of Representatives. Then in 1947, Jackie Robinson scored a home run for history when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers as the first Black athlete to play in Major League Baseball. Full equality for our folks was still way off in the distance, but if you squinted real hard, you could see it taking shape. My family had likewise shifted. After Emily finished high school, shed kept one toe under the roof of our mother and another out on the town with suitors. Her godmother, Miss Cole, eventually introduced her to Reginald, a young man whose family hailed from Nevis. One afternoon when Reggie stopped in to see Miss Coles niece, whom he had taken out a few times, he spotted Emilys picture on the wall. Who is this young lady? he asked. Thats my goddaughter, Emily Tyson, she said proudly. Noting his salivation, Miss Cole arranged for the two to meet, and I was there on the evening of Reggies visit. Knock. Knock. Knock. Who is it? I called out, grinning across the living room at Mom and Emily, who already knew, courtesy of Miss Cole, that Reggie would come calling. It is I, Reginald, he announced in his most proper, put-on-a-show English. I opened the door and in he strode, shoulders square, beret cocked to the left. Lord, have mercy, it was the funniest sight. It took all my might to squelch a snicker. Next thing I knew, Miss Coles niece had gone the way of all flesh as Emily, the charmer that our father had been, swept in and took over Reggies heart. They courted for a year or so and married. I served as Emilys maid of honor, as well as the resident hairdresser who styled the manes of the entire wedding party. I also designed the bridesmaids gowns. As Reggie and my sister spoke their promises before a congregation of more than a hundred, my mothers countenance radiated joy: she had her fairy tale. At last, she had a daughter whod done things the right wayher way. No one in our family wouldve predicted that Emily, with her fresh self, would turn out to be the Good Daughter, the wholesome one, the girl who married before bringing my mother her grandbabies in Gods time. There at the altar, by her side, I stood balancing my sisters bouquet, forcing a smile for her sake while shoving down my sadness. However naive Id been in becoming a teenage mother, however ill-equipped Moms silence had ensured I was, however enraptured I felt by the miracle of Joan, a part of me still mourned falling shy of my mothers great hope for me. My spirit longed to give her the storybook ending she had craved, the fantasy Emily was now handing to her. We are our mothers children, every one of us. And that umbilical cord connection makes you and me, in ways unconscious and profound, their dream keepers. Though Id done so unintentionally, Id allowed my mothers dream, delicate and treasured, to slip from my grasp and shatter at her feet. The fact that we never spoke forthrightly about her disappointment, never dragged that truth out onto the scaffold of our relationship and stood there with it, in no way diminished the pain of its existence for me. Emilys husband, Reggie, was no ministers son. But after the precedent Id set, Mom had revised her expectations to include any respectable Christian gentleman, whether or not his father was a man of the cloth. Like my father, Reggie earned his living as a produce salesman, overseeing a thriving business selling watermelons door to door. In the summers, Reggie would load his truck with a crop and drive up and down the boulevards of Harlem and the Bronx, scouring for customers while yelling, Fifteen cents a melon! So admirable was his ambition that it once drew the notice of a prominent businessman, who stopped by to make a purchase. After Reggie had talked his new customer into buying not one melon but three, the man offered Reggie his card. Why dont you give me a call sometime? he said. As it turned out, the man was one of the owners of Filter Queen, a burgeoning vacuum-cleaner company. You seem like quite a salesman, he told Reggie. How would you like to sell some vacuums? Sir, Reggie said, straightening his posture, I can sell anything. Less than a year later, Reggie had become a top-earning salesman. He did so well that he and Emily traded their apartment in the city for a home in Mount Vernon. She lived close to our Aunt Zora, making herself and my brother-in-law part of my village in rearing Joan. By the early 1950s, my brother had also settled into a new season. During high school, Melrose had been expelled for fighting and sent to a campus for troubled boys. With the same clenched jaw that powered me through my studies, my brother earned his diploma. Soon after, he moved to Montclair, near our cousins there, and he eventually married a lovely woman by the name of Bernice. For years, Melrose earned a living as a clerk for the post office. If thered been an award for penmanship, Melrose would have garnered the gold: he had the most gorgeous cursive Ive ever set eyes on, with each loop and swirl gracefully rendered. Just as no one wouldve pegged Emily as the Tyson traditionalist, few wouldve foreseen that my brother, a restless soul of the streets, would grow into an impeccable scribe. For that matter, only God couldve foretold that I, the gullible girl with no idea how periods and pregnancies were connected, would become an unwed mom. I tell you, this life doesnt simply come with its share of unpredictability; surprise is its most conspicuous feature. Joan sprouted up fast. In those years, I marked time by how well my darling grew. Her care became my singular priority, my all-consuming point of reference. Blurry-eyed and breathless, I sprinted from one daybreak to the next, scrambling to keep the paychecks coming and Joans tuition covered. During back-to-back shifts at various clerical jobs, I kept my fingertips glued to a typewriter, click-clacking my way to solvency. Late every evening, Id then crawl my way back to my aunts place and tip-toe into Joans bedroom, sitting at her side, witnessing her lost in her dream world, watching her chest rise and fall. Before turning in myself, Id lay out Joans clothes and prepare her lunch for the next day. Such was my lifes tempo until the year Joan was ninethe year when my dear aunt craved a respite and I, reluctant yet clear that I needed consistent child care, returned to Moms place and purview. I truly did not want to move back in with my mother. And yet the heavenly Father, in his omniscience, obviously saw fit to keep drawing us together, perhaps because he knew I had some spiritual business to complete. When you ask God for strength, as I do daily, he doesnt usually just drop it from the sky. He often answers by placing you in a circumstance that requires you to build fortitude while relying solely on him. Motherhood had thrust me into adulthood prematurely, and yet emotionally, even by my late twenties, I was still a child in some waysstill a girl guided by the rise and fall of my mothers brow, by her approval and displeasure. While living with my aunt, I towered in my sense of autonomy, wrapped myself tight in the cloak of my position as an independent parent. But back in my mothers apartment, I found myself regressing into the voicelessness of my earliest years, cowering beneath the reign of the woman whod always steered me. By voiceless, I do not mean mute. I bickered weekly with my mother, railed against her rule more than I dared to during childhood. I see now that I wasnt fighting against her, but for myself. Defying her voice was my way of making space for my own, however feeble and uncertain. At the heart of our disputes lived my struggle for womanhood, my yearning to trust Gods whispers and tune out all others. A year after Id been with my mother, the Fathers whisper crescendoed into a shout. After work late one evening, I returned home to find Joan out on the street in front of the apartment, hop-scotching with another girl from the block. I peered around. On one shadowy corner sat a row of old men, slamming down dominoes on a fold-up table and swigging beer. Across from there, a group of women balanced themselves on crates, cackling and carrying on as a radio blared. I then looked up. There, near the top floor of our building, my mother sat on the ledge of her apartments window sill, gazing down at the scene. I glanced at my watch: 10 p.m. What on earth is my child still doing up? I approached Joan, who skipped over into my arms when she spotted me. What are you doing out here at this hour? I asked her. She smiled. Playing, she said, oblivious to the worry on my face. Do you know what time it is? I said. You have to go to school in the morning. Upstairs, my mother had no reasonable explanation for why shed allowed Joan to linger in the streets. Mom, why is this baby outdoors so late? I asked, my voice rising by the syllable. She shrugged. Dont come in here fussing, she snapped. I had my eye on that girl all evening. I could see her from where I was sitting. Joan was ten at the time. When I was that age, the earth wouldve had to topple off its axis for my mother to allow me outdoors after dark. What was she thinking? I did not know. The one reason I conjured had to do with my tense dynamic with Mom since Id returned to live with her. Our disputes were vociferous and constant. In fact, that very week, wed had a doozy of a quarrel. I cannot recall what triggered the clash, probably because it wounded me so. Our strife must be spilling over into her treatment of Joan, I thought. Or maybe, after raising her own three children, Mom had understandably grown weary with caretaking. Whatever had prompted her strange behavior, I knew our arrangement had to end. I did not discuss this with my mother, nor did I ask for her opinion. I simply made a grown-up decision, one markedly absent of her input: I would secure my babys care. I didnt know how I would do so, but I was convinced that I must. The next morning, I began researching boarding schools. With the fifty- and sixty-hour workweeks I was clocking, I knew I could not be there for my daughter in the way that I wanted, the way countless working mothers long to be. And yet if I was going to partner with others in caring for Joan, I had to be sure I could trust the palms I placed her in. When you dont know what to do, you do what you knowand all of my life, Id been taught to trust those guided by the same God who led me. That is why, when my eyes fell on an advertisement for a Christian boarding school in upstate New York, I immediately became interested. Upon calling, I learned that the school was run by a minister and his wife, a couple who once had presided over a church in Harlem. The next week, I traveled to meet the couple. I toured the middle-school campus, talked with some of the teachers and students, and inspected the all-girl dormitories. My spirit said yes. But you can never be too careful when it comes to your child, your treasure, which is why, weeks later, I visited again, to be sure all was in order. I returned home carrying both a greater sense of certainty that this was the right place for Joan and a financial arrangement with the school that put the cost within reach for me. When I revealed my plan to my mother, with nary a stutter as I spoke, she of course protested. Why are you taking that child up there? she pressed. I stared at her but felt no urge to explain, no desire to reveal how her behavior had prompted my choice. I knew what I had to do, and nothing she could say would unbutton my resolve. I would stay on with my mother and continue working in the city, I told her, but Joans care could not be compromised. That was that. In the fall of 1953, at the start of my daughters fifth-grade year, I packed her belongings and took the train with her upstate. Joan was more excited than hesitant about her adventure. But that changed the farther north we rode. An hour into our journey, she folded her palm into mine and leaned in to my shoulder. Mommy, why cant you come with me? she asked. I squeezed her hand. Sweetie, I whispered, I promise I will visit you as often as I can. But Mommy has to work. How do you explain to your daughter, the center of your existence, why you must separate from her? How do you tell a child, one you love to the stars and beyond, that a long stretch of sunrises will live between you? You dont. In place of clarifying, you weep inside, your lips trembling as towns and pine trees and colors blur by your train-car window. You wish it did not have to be, this distance between your worlds. You cringe as you hear your babys plea and grip her hand more tightly. And yet you know. You know with the same immutable assurance that rose up in me on the day I walked away from my marriage. By all outward appearances, there was a decision to be made, a lever to be pulled: stay or go. But inwardly, the only true choice for me was onward. I understood that to my core, knew it with the same certainty Id once known our neighbors apartment would go up in flames, knew it as surely as I know there is a Creator. And yet the truth, however irrefutable it is, does not spare its pursuer the accompanying anguish. On that fall afternoon when I waved goodbye to my child, the red-orange leaves above us lowering their heads in lament, every part of me ached. I kept my promise to visit frequently. In the following months, I traveled north any time I could yank my fingers away from my typewriter. I also brought Joan home for spring break and holidays and sometimes on weekends. I missed her as much as I knew I would, multiplied by far more than that. Whenever Joan was in the city with me, I whisked my angel around town, loading up shopping bags with more dresses and shoes and coats than my checking account could bear. Our eventual partings, our eyelids brimming with sadness and adoration, were no less excruciating than the first had been. That year of long division flowed seamlessly into 1954, the year I turned thirty and was still living with my mother, still finding my way. Thats when God cleared his voice and again spoke. His message, undeniable in its clarity, penetrating in its delivery, came in several spine-tingling installments. 9 Shoulder Taps SHOW me a West Indian woman, and Ill show you an enterpriser holding down three jobs. Years before the arts swept me up in its gale winds, I strung together a living by adding multiple side gigs to my main one. I wielded my hot comb all over the five boroughs, leaving a trail of charred scalps in my wake. After my primary job at the law firm was finished each day, I staggered over to my second gig, what was then known as a typing pool: a group of work-for-hire secretaries who transcribed shorthand notes for (male) executives who did not have their own administrative staffs. I worked nights. Typing pools were not for the feeble. In a cavernous warehouse space, row after row of ambitious young women, with their tie-neck blouses and ruler-straight postures, swiftly churned out documents on mammoth Imperial typewriters. Just to break into most pools, you had to accurately type eighty words per minute. Repeated mistakes, which cost the employer both time and paper in a world still absent of correction fluid, could get you dismissed. I can still feel the brush of my fingertips against the cold steel keys, can hear the cacophony of taps and dings wafting to the ceiling. Id thankfully mastered both stenography and shorthand in high school, and by graduation, I could deliver pristine copy at one hundred words per minute. Aside from that graveyard shift, I rounded up scores of other jobs over the years. One summer, I worked as a transcriptionist for Save the Children. The next, I took a spot on the assembly line of a nail factory. Toward the end of the war, I was hired as a secretary inside the Navy Purchasing office, a sprawling edifice at 90 Church Street. That job put a spring in my fathers gait. After you finish high school, Dad would often tell me when I was a youngster, I want you to go to work in one of those tall buildings downtown. Mind you, he did not care what position I held. My mere presence in a soaring structure, one representing upward mobility, was accomplishment enough for him. In his mind, earning a living in a skyscraper where few Blacks were ever spotted meant Id made it, that his offspring had fared better than he couldve when he arrived in America, empty-handed and hopeful. On the day I landed the job, I called him. Well Dad, I said, you got your wish. Im in one of those tall buildings downtown. That week, he took the number 6 train south to see it for himself. Arm in arm, the two of us stood together on the sidewalk, gazing up in awe. He looked over at me, then skyward again, and then back at me. Congratulations, String Bean, he said, planting a kiss on my cheek as he beamed. The year Joan went to boarding school, I renewed my search for temporary gigs I could fit around my position at the law firm. In those days, everyone at the employment office of the Urban League in Harlem knew me by name; I was in that office more than I was in my mothers apartment. One afternoon, I pranced in, my short hair freshly pressed and precisely styled. Audrey Hepburn, with her pixie cut and her delicate pearl earrings, was the golden girl to mimic in that era, and my family, noting my take on the icons cut, began calling me the Black Audrey. Even strangers would often proclaim, Oh, you look just like Audrey Hepburn. Not quite, but I embraced the compliment. What kind of position are you looking for? asked a young woman I hadnt yet met. Anything, I said. How fast can you type? she asked. Over a hundred words a minute, I said. She nodded approvingly, picked up the receiver on her phone, and dialed one of her contacts. Afterward, she scribbled something on a sheet of paper and handed it to me. Go here, she said. I eyed three words at the top of the paperAmerican Red Crosswith the address, in Midtown near Thirty-Eighth and Lexington, scrawled beneath. That afternoon, I was hired as a fill-in secretary to the vice president, Ms. Ruben. The part-time position, which involved typing case histories for the organization, eventually morphed into full-time work. It also became the vehicle for Gods strong tap on my shoulder. It was 1954. Id been at the Red Cross for about a year when Ms. Johnson, a sweet older Black woman who sat three feet from me in the office, retired. Shed spent most of her career at the company, hunched over a typewriter, producing hundreds of case histories. A farewell party was organized, complete with a sheet cake and well wishes from those whod worked with her. Ms. Johnsons longtime supervisor gave a sentimental speech about how much she loved this woman, how noble her service had been over many decades. As she closed, dabbing at her eyes with a white hankie, she presented Ms. Johnson with a parting gift: a gold wristwatch. Everyone around me clapped. I did not. I stood there feeling dumbfounded, observing all the tears and grins and applause while a thought gripped me: A watch? You mean she spent nearly all her adult life in this place, and all she gets is a measly watch? It seemed absolutely pitiful to me. It also seemed like an opinion best kept to myself. Which is why, later that afternoon when my perspective came sputtering forth, it stunned me. As Ms. Johnson said her final goodbyes around the office, the rest of us clerks settled back at our typewriters, eyeing the wall clock to calculate the number of click-clacks till quitting time. Thats when, seemingly out of nowhere, a proclamation tumbled out of my mouth. Ill tell you one thing, I said loudly enough for everyone to hear. Im not gonna be any place for no thirty years until somebody hands me a wristwatch and says, Thank you very much. Ill buy myself a watch. Silence. If a strand of my hair had fallen to the carpet, you would have heard it. Thats how quiet that room got. Two of my co-workers glanced over at me and another giggled nervously, peering around to see whether our boss had heard me. The girl closest to me stared at me like Id plumb lost it. In a sense, I suppose I had. As life has taught me time and again, you often have to lose your present circumstance to make room for your forthcoming one. A moment later, I went back to typing even as the sentiment lingered. Im never going to be in Ms. Johnsons position, I said to myself. Not me. Some might call it a thought, or perhaps a quiet resolve. I firmly believe it was the voice of God, presenting itself in the form of my own instinct. Leading up to that declaration, God had already planted a seed. For months, Id been feeling an increasing sense of dissatisfaction, an uneasiness born of the query buried in the bosom of all humanity: Is this all there is? That question had been gnawing at me for quite some time. The party, and the gift to Ms. Johnson, simply prompted its expression. To be clear, there is nothing disgraceful about how this woman had chosen to spend her working years. For all I knew, Ms. Johnson had fulfilled her grand vision for herself in a perfectly honorable pursuit. When shed entered the workforce in the 1920s, this sister wouldve been considered quite fortunate to have office work, never mind a job steady enough to sustain her through the Depression and beyond. And yet I had a powerful sense that my journey would be less stationary and more adventure-filled, that it would wind and bob its way through a landscape devoid of steno pads and number-two pencils. I couldnt imagine spending decades at a desk, all for someone to congratulate me, in the end, with a watch from a department store. My life, my service, my timethey were worth far more to me than a hundred-dollar timepiece. Not long after, that feeling intensified. I was given a new case history to transcribe, one involving a young Black wife and mother. In her consultation with my supervisor, the woman confided that her husband was having sex with their eight-year-old daughter. When I got to that line, I stopped typing and picked up the paper, rereading and praying Id seen it wrong. I hadnt. Why didnt you report him? Ms. Ruben had asked the mother. Her answer still sends a shiver through me: I was afraid he would lose his job, she had said. Ill tell you, I was no good for the rest of that week. Your child is being molested by her father, and you wont go to the authorities because youre scared hell be fired? It sickened me to my core. It also served as a painful reminder of what it meant, and still often means, to be Black in this country. So precarious has our financial position been that too many of us have been forced to choose between economic security and safety for our children. Even now, all these years later, recalling that transcript makes me want to retch. No way could I, year after year, bear witness to such agony, memorializing heartache with ink-stained iron keystrokes. After typing up the full case that afternoon, I pushed myself back from the desk and made another major proclamation. I am sure God didnt put me on the face of this earth to bang on a typewriter for the rest of my life, I said. There is something else for me to do. I dont know what it is, but I will find it. From my lips to Gods earsor, as I see it now, the other way around. The next week, I received another love note from heaven. During my lunchtime, I shot out of the office and headed straight for nearby Lord and Taylor. Oh, how I loved that department store! During the holidays, its windows along Fifth Avenue featured the most breathtaking Christmas displays, lavish and sparkling, casting a spell and glow over the entire block. Admirers traveled from all parts of the globe just to stand before those windows in all their twinkling glory. I frankly had little business in a store, given what I earned, but that never stopped me from roaming the aisles, dreaming about a new pocketbook or a scarf for Joan. It broke my heart when, decades later in 2019, the store closed its doors after a century in business. Anyway, on that day, I flounced out to shop, feeling attractive in my wraparound pinstripe dress and patent-leather pumps, eager for my midday routine. What happened next was anything but. Just as I was rounding the corner onto Fifth Avenue, a Black man decked out in a business suit and a scarlet bowtie tapped me on the shoulder. I swiveled around. Excuse me, Miss, he said, are you a model? No, I said, searching his face for where this was going. Well if you arent, he said, you should be. I blushed, not sure how to respond. I never saw myself as beautiful. My first crush, Horace, had convinced me I was somewhat cute, at least in his eyes, but beyond that, I thought I was plain. When it came to appearance, what I felt certain about was my ability to dress, thanks to the elite fashion education afforded to me by my parents, known in our church as Mr. and Mrs. Beau Brummell. Stylish? Yes, darling, and please pass me my mink stole. Slender? Absolutely. But beautiful? That label did not live at the heart of my self-identity. In the view of whites in this country, ones Blacknesscharacterized by the tiniest drop of melanin or the faintest trace of a Negroid featurehas historically nullified ones gorgeousness. And yet despite that, others always seemed to be telling me I was pretty, particularly in my twenties as I grew out of my lankiness and into my face and figure. So when this stranger stopped me on the street, the surprise wasnt just that he thought I was attractive. It was that he nudged me toward a universe that was foreign to me. How do you go about becoming a model? I asked him. You connect with an agent and you go to modeling school, he explained. Once youve finished your training, the agent sends you out on interviews for jobs. He paused and looked me up and down, as if to be sure his original assessment had been accurate. You really should give it a shot, he said. I smiled, politely thanked him, and went on about my way to the store. I initially disregarded the strangers comments. Me, a model? The idea seemed outlandish, given that I was almost thirty years old and presumably well past a models prime time. And yet our conversation curled up in my spirit, the way certain notions do when theyre set on residing permanently. And right alongside that hmmm was the feeling Id been grappling with, the sense that my work as a secretary was not the end of the career road for me, but rather a milestone along an alternate route. So acute was this feeling that one week after that businessman stopped me on the sidewalk, I pulled out the Yellow Pages. I flipped to the section labeled Modeling Schools and scanned the list of agencies. All of them, based on the names and locations, seemed headed by white folks. Theyre not going to take me for no modeling job anyhow, I thought. I slammed the book shut. Yet I continued to ponder the idea and even mentioned it to my longtime friend Thelma Jack. The two of us had met years earlier during our young teens at a summer camp upstate. Thelmas face lit up when I told her what the man had proposed. You know, theres a woman in Harlem who runs a modeling school, she told me. Her name is Barbara Watson. Shes the daughter of Judge Watsonas in James S. Watson, the first Black judge elected in New York City, and husband to Violet Lopez Watson, a founding member, along with Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, of the National Council of Negro Women. In 1946, Barbara Mae Watson, the eldest of four, founded the first agency for African-American models. Emboldened by my friends encouragement, and armed with this fresh data, I called the school. Ms. Watson herself answered. I stammered my way through a conversation, and she saved me from my bluster with a concluding request: Why dont you come in for an interview? I got right to work on preparing. I may have known nothing about a catwalk, but I was confident I could put on a fashion show, one I prayed would impress this well-spoken, Barnard-educated lady whod been gracious enough to invite me in. My favorite color was light blue, and my closet teemed with the hue: blue tea-length hoop skirts, blue pocketbooks, blue everything. Years later, I grew into purple, but it never stole blues spotlight. Dont you know any other color? my mother would ask me. I never wearied of its soothing quality, its ability to transport me to a wide-sky, cloud-dappled tranquility. So for my inaugural meeting with Ms. Watson, I of course fished out my finest powder-blue cotton dress, one gathered at the waist, with a row of glistening gold buttons stretching down its left side. I completed the look with black suede pumps and silk thigh-high stockings, minus garters. Like many working-class West Indian women, I secured each stocking with a top knot tight enough to cut off ones circulation. I was blessed to even have silk nylons. During the war, silk and other commodities had run in short supply, and as a result, nylon repair shops sprang up. My spot was a little cleaners in a basement, around the corner from the Red Cross. Before my interview, I took my nylons there, and child, once they fixed my two runs for five cents each, those stockings looked brand new. People then took such pride in their workmanship. On the day I stepped my suede toe over Ms. Watsons threshold, I strutted in like I was working a Paris runway. She scanned my outfit, smiled, and offered me a seat. So have you done any modeling at all, Miss Cicely? she asked. No, maam, I have not, I said, carefully pronouncing each word. I see, she said. She then asked me a few questions about my background, as well as how Id learned about the agency. I gave her the short story as she jotted down notes on an intake form. Well, she finally said, leaning back in her seat and laying down her pen, what would you think about having some photos taken? I nodded. That would be, I mean . . . yes, Miss, I said, trying to contain my glee. Excellent, she said, standing up to show me out to the lobby. And in the meantime, I hope youll sign up for our course. Nearly before shed completed that sentence, Id enrolled. The evening course, which included about twenty-five women, spanned several weeks. Ms. Watson taught us the fundamentals of charm and poise: how to perfect our postures, how to hold our bodies as we glided across a room with effortlessly supple movement, how to pose for photographers, how to pivot and curtsy and smile. At five-feet-four-inches tall, I wasnt runway material, so I kept my ears widest for the catalog and magazine model training. Meanwhile, I began work on my portfolio. I arranged for a photographer to take three images of me: a head shot in a (navy) suit, a body shot in a (baby blue) dress, and a swimsuit shot in a (teal) two-piece suit. The latter was quite modestnothing like todays dental-floss bikinis that leave ones derriere hanging out. If Id been required to don such a suit, this church girl wouldve ended her modeling career before it began. But I was comfortable in my portfolio bikini, one cut just below the naveland one just like those I wore to the beach. Once Id received the photos, I scheduled a session with Ms. Watson to show her the spread. Her business partner, Mildred Smithwho also served as an editor at Our World magazine, a lifestyle publication catering to Black womenattended the meeting. The two looked through my photos, closely studying each. Neither said a word. Can you please give us a few moments to speak? Ms. Watson finally said. Yes, of course, I said, my heart hammering away in my chest. The women then stepped off to the side and out of my earshotlikely so they could decide how to run me out of that office, I feared. After what felt like hours but was probably three minutes, they turned to me. So how many copies did you have made of each of these photos? Ms. Watson asked. Well I didnt know what you would expect, I said, so I just got a few. Well, she said, wed like to order a few hundred more on your behalf. I gulped. Really? I said, my eyes widening. Yes, really, she said, smiling. While Id decided I was about to be banished from modeling schools the world over, the women had been discussing my strategic launch: how to saturate the market with my photos. In my class of potential models, only two were ultimately chosen. I, daughter of a housekeeper, child of the Most High, was astoundingly one of them. I did not resign from the Red Cross, at least not right away. In the early days of my new modeling career, I had no reason to believe this little venture of mine would be anything more than a leisure pursuit. A hobby wouldnt pay Joans tuition. Still, I poured my soul into the project. Ms. Watson, of course, rounded up opportunities for me. And I, rather than high-tailing it to Lord and Taylor at noon, scoured the avenues of the city, turning up cold at magazines and womens catalog companies and offering my portfolio. Every one of us bears the wounds and characteristics our parents unwittingly pass onto us, and likewise, we receive their most admirable tendencies. Willie and Fredericka, bare-knuckled and unremitting, handed their work ethic to me. I booked a few catalog gigs immediately, bolstering my excitement that modeling might be my ticket out of a years-long sentence as a secretary. The jobs were small, but I loved the work, just loved it: the posing and the grinning, the rapid-fire click-click-click of the camera, and of course, the bottomless well of beautiful clothing. I suppose to be truly successful at any pursuit, you have to fall in love with it, surrender to its gravitational pull, allow it to carry you off to that world of giddy sleeplessness. Speaking of shut-eye, I got little. I pecked my way, nine to five on weekdays, through my work at the Red Cross before making my evening rounds with portfolios spilling from my satchel. Then after my 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift in the secretarial sweatshop two nights a week, I dashed home with just enough time to shower, brush my teeth, and limp back out the door. From the start, I viewed modeling for what it wasa business, an income generator. The fact that I saw it as such is why the bashfulness of my youth naturally fell away, because believe me, I have never been shy about making money. The most potent antidote to reticence is survival. The gigs at first trickled in, and then flooded. In the beginning, I modeled anything and everything: shoes and handbags and hats and swimsuits and even wigs for local hair salons. Those entry-level jobs put me on the map in the modeling community, and before long, I was landing covers and spreads for major magazines such as Ebony, Jet, and of course the publication where Ms. Mildred Smith worked, Our World. It was there, one afternoon in early 1955, when God breathed in my direction yet again. On my way out of a meeting with Ms. Smith, I spotted a woman in the waiting room. As I passed, she gave me the once-over and I, thinking nothing of it, nodded courteously and hurried back to the Red Cross. I didnt know it at the time, but that woman happened to be Evelyn Davis, an actress. When Evelyn went in to see Ms. Smith, she asked her, Who was that young lady who sashayed out of here? Shes a model working with Barbara Watson, she said. Why do you ask? Because I just came from an interview for a movie, she said, and they are looking for a young lady who looks just like her to play the lead. I hadnt been back at my work desk for more than three minutes when the phone rang. I think I got you a movie, said Ms. Smith, hardly breathing between each word. A movie? I said. What are you talking about, a movie? She explained what Evelyn had mentioned and then concluded with, And can you believe you look just like the young lady theyre looking for?! Evelyn can arrange for you to meet the director. I paused and glanced around, concerned that my supervisor would overhear me on the phone. Listen, I said, I dont know anything about making no movie. And Im not going any place to make a fool of myself. Click. Id been to see one film during my lifetime, and as you know, the experience scared the spit out of me. A movie? No way was I going to get involved with the film business. But God clearly saw it another wayand he sent Ms. Smith to deliver his opposing viewpoint. The next morning she called me again, begging me to reconsider. Why dont you just go over and meet the director? she kept saying. I declined. Finally, after she rang me three days in a row, I almost burst a blood vessel. Look, do me a favor, I said, trying and failing to whisper. Youre going to make me lose my job. Please . . . dont call me anymore. Then tell me that youll go see this man after you get off work today, she urged. Yes, yes, yes! I said, rushing her off the phone. Just as I was about to click down the receiver, she said, But waityou dont know where Im sending you! Well then youd better talk fast, I told her. She gave me the address, an office down in Carnegie Hall. The directors name was Warren Coleman. I wasnt at all nervous to meet Mr. Colemanwhom I eventually came to call Warren. I had no expectations and therefore no stakes, other than to get Ms. Smith off my back. I sat there, relaxed as could be, while Warren, with his velvety-smooth voice and easy smile, led me on a tour of his professional ascent. As one of theaters most gifted operatic baritones, Warren had created and played the roles of Crown in Gershwins Porgy and Bess and John Kumalo in Kurt Weills Lost in the Stars. He became a Broadway fixture throughout the 1930s and 1940s, which was long enough for him to recognize how Black artists were mistreated, how our creative brilliance was overshadowed by our social rank, how the same white audience members who applauded Black performers publicly wouldnt allow them to scoot up to their private dinner tables. Those realities had prompted him to form his own production company and create films reflecting African-American life, in all of its resplendent intricacy. He was just beginning work on his first independent movie, The Spectrum, a film about color consciousness in the Black community. As he spoke, I feigned interest, nodding at the appropriate junctures, the whole time thinking: This is nonsense. I am not going to be any actress. How much do you know about acting? Warren asked me. Nothing at all, I said. Well I have the script of the film right here, he said. He rummaged through a stack of papers and notebooks on his desk and handed me a spiral-bound book. Why dont you take this home and read it? I flipped through it, just to be polite. Ive never done anything like this, sir, I told him. I just dont think Im the right onebut I appreciate your time. I then sat the book on the desk, picked up my pocketbook, and walked toward the door. No wait a minute . . . wait, he said, retrieving the script and following me toward the entrance. I really want you to take this script with you. Can you just read it and see what you think? Will you do that? I looked back at him. I suppose, I said, thinking, What harm could come of it? I guess I could have a look. Excellent, he said, giving me the book. Ill give you a call in a couple weeks. I carried the script home and tossed it into my bedside drawer. I prefer my humiliation private, thank you very much, and as ambitious as I was to earn money, I had no interest in making a public spectacle of myself. I promptly forgot about the script until, a couple of days later when I was searching in that drawer for a hairbrush, my eyes fell on the books cover. I pulled it out and read the first page. An hour later, I was still reading. The story gripped me. Autumn, the female lead and a blossoming writer, came to New York with aspiration in her eyes, hoping to sell an article shed penned. She was my dark complexion. The magazine editor she approached was light-skinned, as was the man she eventually fell in love with. The two began a courtship, and the mans mother, determined that her son maintain the privilege of their honey-tinged heritage, protested mightily. If you marry her, she warned him, youll destroy your career. I found the plot captivating, yet I still could not see myself in it, especially as the lead. If Warren succeeded in making the film, I told myself, Id be the first to line up at the cinema to see who played in it and what this whole acting thing was about. And yet, much as I had no vision of myself as Autumn, my curiosity had been awakenedanother shoulder tap, another whisper from on high. At two weeks to the day, Warren rang me. Id like you to come to the studio and meet someone, he said. I agreed. When I arrived, he introduced me to an actor by the name of Hal DeWindt, who was to play the male lead in The Spectrum. So what did you think of the script? Warren asked me with hope in his voice. I think its great reading, I said, chuckling. I enjoyed the story very much. Good, he said. He looked over at Hal, and then back at me. Id like the two of you to read a scene together, he said. Cicely, you read Autumn, and Hal will read his part. I paused, slowly reached into my bag, and pulled out the script. The reading flowed seamlessly. Our voices fit together naturally, weaving and swaying in step, as if wed been rehearsing with one another for weeks. Magic operates as such. When a pivot is predestined on the stone tablet of your life story, there is often an inexplicable ease to it. It feels otherworldly, from an Almighty source beyond your frail humanity. That is how reading that scene felt to mesupernatural. When I completed my final lines and looked up, Warren was staring at me and grinning. So do you want to be an actress, Cicely? he said. Seems to me you already are. I lowered the script and looked down at the floor, giving doubt a chance to resurface. I dont know anything about making a movie, I told him. Well, he said, laughing and sidestepping my reluctance, I guess youll find out. Warren asked whether he could call me again. The part of my spirit that understood the moments transcendence, the power of the precipice I was dancing along, agreed. Even when we humans are busy shaking our heads no, shoving down our fears and shoving off our blessings, the Father has a way of propelling us forward, of moving us toward his way. Warren indeed called and pleaded with me to play Autumn, only to be met with another round of my misgivings. And just as Ms. Smith had, he called a second time, refusing to be shunned. By his third call, Id finally aligned my will with the Fathers. I told Warren yes. And he not only persuaded me to play the role; he insisted that he manage me. How old are you? he asked me early on. Thirty, I told him. He gazed at me incredulously. Really? he said. I nodded. Well you certainly dont look it, he said. You could pass for ten years younger, my dear, and from now on, you should claim to be. Nature has bestowed Black people with one of its most prized gifts, melanin, and in a society where we are seldom allowed an advantage, Warren understood the importance of utilizing mine. Six decades would go by before I let the public in on what was frankly never any of their business. By the time I agreed to portray Autumn, filming had paused. Warren was leaving shoe tracks all over Manhattan, trying to raise the necessary capital to complete the production. That didnt stop Hal and me. We began rehearsing during my lunch breaks, as well as any time I could wedge a session into the cracks of my packed schedule. As we practiced our scenes, gone was the apprehension Id felt about acting, and in its place was the passion that had powered my rise as a model. I may initially waver before lunging toward a new experience, but once I do, I grow unrelenting. I rehearsed my lines with the frenzy of a capsized sailor, gasping for air, desperate to stay afloat. And even while Hal and I worked, Warren began sending me out on small auditions. I mostly floundered, but that didnt matter because at least I was in the room. One failed audition at a time, I was learning the business, dipping my toe in its frigid waters. It was Warren who introduced me to the flurry and bustle of New York theater and, in many ways, to life beyond the walls of the church world Id been reared in. Given his long-standing success on Broadway, he had access, which he leveraged to offer me a crash course in both craft and sophistication. I became fast friends with the affable Diana Sands, another young actress in The Spectrum, and Warren whisked us from one play and concert to the next, where we met performers backstage, soaking in the chaos and the costumes and the color of their behind-the-curtain artistry and antics. Afterward, he exposed us to some of the citys finest cuisines (in the rice-and-plantains existence of my youth, escargot had absolutely no place). Into the wee hours of the morning over such purported delicacies, wed talk scripting and technique and plot. I had no idea what I was gibbering about, of course, but Warren insisted I had potential. Youve got natural talent, he assured me. Id smile and think, What does that even mean? A raw slab of marble also has so-called potential, but only when a sculptor chips away at it, piece by piece, does a face emerge. Raw talent does not a fine actor make. Which is why, even as I zealously rehearsed with Hal, I prioritized my modeling work. Before I knew it, I was earning enough money to finally leave the Red Cross, three decades shy of a gilded watch, and feeling grateful for the stepping-stone that job served for me. From the start, Id told my mother about my modeling work, and surprisingly, she voiced no objections, especially after she began spotting me in the center spreads of the magazines she read. She soaked it up: she had a famous daughter, child, one with accomplishments worth displaying, one she could now be proud of again after a season of a lowered head. My work qualified not as an ungodly undertaking, but as a point of family and community pride. But the same could not be said of her perspective on my film work, which I hid from her. One night Warren asked me, Have you told your mother about the movie? I shook my head. She would not approve, I said. Well maybe I should talk to her, he offered. Thats not a good idea, I shot back. I would rather her not know right now. My work on The Spectrum was easy to conceal. Mom was used to my coming and going at all times of the day and night, so that did not raise suspicion. But things changed soon after my conversation with Warren. Late one evening, after Warren and I had seen a mesmerizing production of My Fair Lady at the Mark Hellinger Theater, he walked me home. My mother happened to be sitting at her window, looking down and watching the world go by, like the old folks often do. She spotted Warren and me. When I got upstairs to the apartment, the grand inquisition commenced. Who was that man you were with? she asked me. Hes a producer, Mom, I said. Hes doing a movie, and he would like me to be a part of it. I stopped short of revealing Id been rehearsing for months. You cant do that, she told me. Why? I said. Youre going to leave this good job you have for this damn foolishness? she said, referring to my typing pool and modeling work. I didnt say I was leaving anything, I retorted. I just said I was going to go do this movie. She stared at me for a long moment. Well you cant stay here and do that, she said. Her statement jarred me so, echoed through me, that I could not even look at her. Without a word, I rose from the couch and disappeared into my bedroom. There was no sense in arguing with my mother. What she was forbidding me to do I was already headlong into doing, with no intention of reversing course. God himself had pointed my suede pumps in this new direction. Id come to believe that, even as I was still making sense of the film industry and wondering whether I had any place in it. And while Id known instinctively this disagreement with my mother had been postponable, Id also realized it was inevitable. Id dared to enter the den of iniquity, Lucifers workshop as my Mom saw it. Anything to do with entertainment or theater was pure sin, the devils territory, an express train to Hades. My apparent transgression, as well as the temerity Id shown in mentioning it within my mothers earshot, was grounds enough for her to promptly dismiss me. The next day, I called Thelma Jack. She was working for the telephone company and had her own place downtown at 112 East Seventh Street. It had two bedrooms. May I come live with you? I asked her after explaining my situation. She enthusiastically agreed, eager not only to share her apartment, but also to halve the rent. Id have my own private space there, one large enough to have Joan with me during her school breaks. Another upside that made Thelma the consummate roommate candidate: she and I wore the same dress size, a 4. That was important to me because, in between rehearsing and modeling, I was still constantly interviewing for clerical temp jobs. When Id go out on interviews, I could borrow Thelmas dressesand borrow I did. When I left my mothers apartment, we did not speak for nearly a year. We did not see each other for almost two. As devastated as I was by her choice, as deeply as her words had sliced through me, I knew shed made the only decision she felt she could. It was her way of loving me, of trying to redirect my steps and shift my affections away from the strivings of this world and back toward the kingdom of heaven. And yet even those who care deeply for us cannot always see our big picture, the Grand Story Line that is destined to unfold before us. They are on their own journeys. And though their paths may run parallel to ours, each is singular in its curves and mileposts, unique in its destination. As much as others want the best for us, they do not necessarily understand Gods best. He alone does. My liberation from my mothers rule created in me a newfound fervor. Mom had hoped to douse my burgeoning dream with her condemnation, prayed she could snuff it out with a stinging decree. But shed inadvertently lit a match beneath me. Up to then, enamored though I was with the notion of acting, I was still secretly grappling with my fears, my uncertainties about whether Id ever be good enough for the stage. My mothers disapproval became my liquid fuel, my requisite source of strength. Before she put me out, Id been attempting to prove to myself that I could excel as an actress. Afterward, her displeasure pushed me, if nothing else, to prove her wrong. I tell you, boy, God certainly kept me in his sight line. I couldnt have dreamed up a script more compelling than the one that played out for me during those years. Who just happens to be approached on the street by a total stranger, only to have that man propose modeling, only to have that modeling work become a footbridge to the stage? To some, this might look like happenstance, a sequence of coincidences, a string of disconnected flukes. As I see it, my tide shift, my sharp turnaround, had the Saviors handprints all over it. His sovereignty was apparent to me. It still is. The same Master who holds the firmaments in the crease of his palms, who commands oceans to recede, who maintains humanitys entire existence with the mist of his breaththat God, the Source of time itself, the Creator of all life, has forever been directing mine. 10 Center Stage ITS NOT every day you find yourself seated next to Marilyn Monroe. Such a day arrived for me in 1956, not long after Id devoted myself to acting. By then, The Spectrum had become an afterthought. Once Warrens coffers had run dry halfway through filming, he never could replenish them, even once hed left skid marks all over Manhattan trying to raise capital. Rather than simmering in that setback, he linked arms with director Harold Young and screenplay writer Charles Gossett for Carib Gold, a maritime movie about a shrimp boat crew that discovers a sunken treasure. Diana Sands, whod become a dear sister-friend to me, was cast in the film. So was I, though not as the lead. I was to play Dottie, wife of a deckhand. Perhaps strangely to some, I felt relieved not to play the principal role. With my career still in its infancy, my preparation had yet to catch up with my passion. By the time Warren connected with Harold and Charles about the script, the inimitable Ethel Waters, the 1920s blues singer who, by that time, had begun lending her artistic deftness to the stage, had already been tapped as Caribs headliner. Do you even want to be in the film? Warren had asked me, having observed my periodic vacillations between euphoria to be in the industry and murmuring about how ruefully ill-prepared I felt. I shrugged. During one particularly low valley, Id even threatened to go back to the Red Cross. What stopped me was the stubbornness passed on to me from a certain Fredericka Theodosia Huggins, the woman I was set on rebutting. Well what do you want? Warren pressed, aggravation in his tone. I want to learn what its all about, I said, sighing. I dont know what Im doing, Warren. I dont understand it. I need to study. Thus began my months-long quest for formal training. Warren persisted in his belief that my innate gifts would be enough to carry me, that the well of emotion stored up during my childhood, formed by my wail amid strife in my familys East Side home, shaped when I witnessed my mother up for auction on a Bronx sidewalk, was all the training necessary for me to infuse my portrayals with authenticity. It wasnt. Trauma may give rise to intense feeling, but to refine ones artistry, an actor must be taught to channel the unbridled rawness of that emotion, to effectively use it in service of a characters every groan and grimace. Rather than placing me in a course for total beginners, Warren instead sent me to a downtown studio for actors with some experience, albeit limited. The course gave me a migraine. Id sit in class wondering, What are these people talking about? How do they know how to gesture, whether to speak, when to emote? I couldnt grasp it. I dont remember the instructors name, but I do recall becoming friendly with his wife. You know, I told her after class one day, I really dont like this. Why not? she asked. Whats the matter? Because I dont understand whats happening, I said. I need someone to explain this whole thing to me. Dont worry, she said, smiling, itll come. It didnteven after Id stayed on for several more classes. She and Warren kept claiming, counterintuitively to me, that I was lost because I had too much skill. The problem is that youre so far ahead of your classmates theres nothing there for you to learn, Warren said. That assertion made no sense to me. As far as I could see, I had plenty to learn, whether or not he acknowledged it. The next experience was significantly better but still no bulls-eye. Warren connected me with Miriam Goldina, the Russian-born stage actress and drama coach whod studied under Konstantin Stanislavski, the grandfather of method actinga technique requiring a performers full immersion in the emotional realities of the character to be portrayed. Miriam taught me some tangibles. For one thing, she made me acutely aware of the importance of words: how to listen closely to them, how to read the spaces between them, how to become cognizant of the intent behind each. When youre in conversation with someone, why might that person be saying what he or she is saying? What is that person trying to elicit from you? We examined those questions and many others, making me conscious of how critical it is for an artist to do more listening than speaking, a skill Id been unknowingly practicing since my earliest years. What Miriam and I did not explore was what she likely assumed I already possessedthe fundamentals of acting, Theater 101. More than anything during that time, I craved a foundation. That is exactly what I told Lee Strasberg on the day I enrolled at the Actors Studio, then the most prestigious theatrical collective in the nation. Lee, whod refined and further developed Stanislavskis approach to method acting and introduced it to the West, was training greats such as Anne Bancroft and Jane Fonda. Surely he could guide me through my labyrinth of confusion and give me the basics. Please, I begged him, I dont want to be put in a class with professionals. I want to start from the beginning. Lee nodded as if he agreed, but he apparently took Warrens word over mine and placed me with the pros. Thats how I ended up an elbows length away from the blond and beguiling Marilyn Monroe, then fresh off her run in the blockbuster romantic comedy The Seven Year Itch. I, too, had an itchan instinct to flee the second I spotted her: Lord in heaven, what am I doing here!? Hello, she purred in my direction. That was my first time in class with Marilyn. It was also my last. I huffed my way out of there and over to Warrens office. When I tell you I want to start at the bottom, I said, I mean the very bottom, not in a class with a big star! Warren, as amused by my tantrums as he was accustomed to them, just laughed. Well all right, Cicely, he said. Maybe its time I send you over to Lloyd Richards. I knew the name. Diana had mentioned the distinguished acting coach to me on several occasions, most notably when Id fallen into one of my steepest stupors about my inexperience. Id uttered another (empty) threat that evening: I was one melancholic episode away from returning to my day job. You know, you really should go down to Paul Mann Actors Workshop, Diana had told me. Lloyd Richards, Pauls business partner there, is supposed to be one of the best. Try it. And if, after you go, you find that you still cant make sense of this business, then you can quit. But please give yourself a chance. Paul, an accomplished theater actor whod founded the workshop in 1953, was Caucasian. Lloyda renowned African-American actor and director who, years later, went on to serve as dean of the Yale School of Dramahad created a nurturing environment for Black artists. Sidney Poitier had studied with Lloyd. So had Harry Belafonte, Ruby Dee, and Billy Dee Williams. That was r?sum? enough to get me across the threshold to the school. My initial appointment was with Paul, whose introductory course was required for incoming students. Our meeting began as such encounters do, with handshakes and smiles and niceties. It ended traumatically. So Cicely, he said after wed been chatting for a few moments, where do you see yourself going in this industry? As I thought about his question, his gaze traveled down from my eyes to my chest. My heartbeat raced. Paul rose from his desk and walked over to shut his door. I stood, as did every hair on my neck. Well, I mean, I stammered. Before I could continue, Paul, a menacing tower of flesh, thrust himself toward me and began manhandling my breasts, attempting to remove my blouse as I shoved him away. No! I yelled. Get off of me! He tried to jam me against the wall and shove his hand under my camisole, but I somehow managed to break free. Once Id pried myself loose, blouse untucked from my skirt, hair scattered in every direction, I grabbed my pocketbook and fled to the door. As I reached for the knob, Paul spoke. Class begins next week, he said in an eerily calm voice, as if he hadnt just attacked me. You are welcome to come. Without looking at him, I opened the door and disappeared down the hall, holding back tears long enough to make it out the front door. Once home, I collapsed into sobs on my bed. A week later at the start of his introductory course, I showed up. Paul had already gathered with the group of students whod enrolled in it, and when I entered, he stopped speaking and stared at me. I thought Id never see you again, he said, incredulousness in his tone. I breathed not a sentence and took a seat. Life is choices, and as I saw it, I had two. I couldve fled from that mans office and never returned. Many, understandably, might have chosen that route. And yet the alternative option, the less obvious of the two, was the one I settled upon. I had arrived at that studio with the singular purpose of training with Lloyd. And though Paul, in a show of flagrant lasciviousness, had attempted to thwart my mission, I was not to be deterred. When someone sees you headed in a direction, and that person throws a brick into the road, that is the precise moment to forge onward, with greater velocity, toward your destination. I had a purpose, one that, despite all of my wavering, I had witnessed God orchestrating. And I refused to have some man, with his hot breath on my neck and his pasty fingers on my nipples, impede my plan. It had never been Pauls name that had been spoken to me. It was Lloyds. And whatever it was that Lloyd had to offer me, I intended to get it. If that meant enduring Pauls course so I could move on to Lloyds permanent tutelage, so be it. If that involved swallowing the recollection of his brazen assault, of forgetting what hed stolen from me in the same manner a passerby once had, if that was the price to be rendered, I stood ready to pay. All these years later, what Paul did to me that daythe way he put his hands on methe trauma is emblazoned on my memory. When someone violates you sexually, it does not simply haunt and aggrieve you; it alters the very shape of your soul. And altered I was. Contrary to the mythology surrounding the unflinching nature of African-American women, we, too, experience trauma. Black womenour essence, our emotional intricacies, the indignities we carry in our bonesare the most deeply misunderstood human beings in history. Those who know nothing about us have had the audacity to try to introduce us to ourselves, in the unsteady strokes of caricature, on stages, in books, and through their distorted reflections of us. The resulting Fun House image, a haphazard depiction sketched beneath the dim light of ignorance, allows ample room for our strength, our rage and tenacity, to stand at center stage. When we express anger, the audience of the world applauds. That expression aligns with their portrait of us. As long as we play our various designated rolesas court jesters and as comic relief, as Aunt Jemimas and as Jezebels, as maids whisking aperitifs into drawing rooms, as shuckin and jivin half-wits serving up levitywe are worthy of recognition in their meta-narrative. We are obedient Negroes. We are dutiful and thus affirmable. But when we dare tiptoe outside the lines of those typecasts, when we put our full humanity on display, when we threaten the social constructs that keep others in comfortable superiority, we are often dismissed. There is no archetype on file in which a Black woman is simultaneously resolute and trembling, fierce and frightened, dominant and receding. My mother, a woman who, amid abuse, stuffed hope and a way out into the slit of a mattress, is the very face of fortitude. I am an heir to her remarkable grit. However, beneath that tough exterior, Ive also inherited my mothers tender femininity, that part of her spirit susceptible to bruising and bleeding, the doleful Dosha who sat by the window shelling peanuts, pondering how to carry on. The myth of the Strong Black Woman bears a kernel of truth, but it is only a half-seed. The other half is delicate and ailing, all the more so because it has been denied sunlight. On the day I went back to Paul Manns school, I was unswerving in my resolve to study with Lloyd. I was also vulnerableas traumatized by Pauls behavior as any woman might have been. My decision to return became a defining one, a choice that sent a resounding echo through the decades of my career. After Id endured Pauls course, eyes averted, nose in my notebook, I went on to train exclusively with Lloyd, one of two genius coaches who molded me during those years. I managed to completely avoid Paul, showing up at the studio only when Lloyd was teaching. By the time Lloyd and I connected, Id begun work on Carib, flitting between New York and Key West, Florida, where the movie was shot. When I returned to the city during breaks in filming, I couldnt get over to Lloyds office fast enough, ready to soak in all he had to teach meabout exploring my characters emotional truth, about enhancing my understanding of her given circumstances, about making artistic choices commensurate with that awareness. At the school, I got to know Ruby Dee. She was also in training then, though alongside my shade of bright green, Ruby and her husband, Ossie Davis, were already deep-emerald sages of the stage. Ruby, diminutive yet spirited, was as much a firecracker then as her decades of civil rights crusading, in front of the curtain and beyond it, would reveal her to be. Girl, Ill tell you, shed often say to me then, if you can be Black and live in this world, you can be anything you want to be. Ruby, who by 1956 was nearly two dozen stage and film credits into her career, had experienced the humiliations that come with Acting While Black, of having nearly every available role be that of a domestic, of loaning her talents to directors who, away from the lights, sneered down at her as genetically and intellectually subpar. Ruby had cut her thespian teeth amid such insults. She, Ossie, Harry, Sidney, Isabel Sanford, Alice Childress, Hilda Simms, and scores of other then-unknown artists had come up through the American Negro Theater, a 1940s community theater group founded by Black actors, in part as a response to the dearth of roles illuminating the breadth of our experience, and in part to create a warm cocoon for Black actors confronting bigotry in the shadows of the Great White Way. In the groups early years, actors rehearsed in the basement of the Harlem branch of the New York Public Library and performed at Harlems Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Ruby and the rest of them understood that the most difficult part of our work happened not in studios and rehearsal spaces, not on stages and sets. Just walking through this life as a Black person, and actually surviving that, was and still is an ovation-worthy performance. During those times, I knew Ruby and the others not as the theatrical giants the world would come to regard them as. I knew them as human beings, first and foremost, grappling with their private insecurities and frights, struggling to breathe air into their characters lungs. I knew them as waitresses and as dishwashers, as clerks and as survivors, as dreamers moonlighting their way to some semblance of solvency. The introverted Sidney Poitier, who began work on A Raisin in the Sun in the late 1950s, was always more confident on film than he was before a live audience, when nerves, at times, got the better of him. Such tremors had arisen during Sidneys 1946 Broadway debut in Lysistrata, when his preshow peek at a packed house sent his teeth to chattering. When he walked out onstage, he forgot his first line and skipped straight to his eighth. But still, his talent shone through. The show was critically panned, yet Sidney received favorable reviews, enough of them to untie his tongue and put fresh wind at his back. It was Sidney who connected Lloyd and Lorraine Hansberrythe soft-spoken revolutionary who had penned Raisin as a head-nod to Langston Hughess poem, and in memory of her own childhood marred by flagrant prejudice. Sidney had a long-standing pact with his friend and director. While a student at Paul Mann Actors Workshop, Sidney once said to Lloyd, If I ever do anything on Broadway, I want you to direct it. So when Lorraines scintillating script landed in his possession, he knew exactly where to take it. In Lloyds gifted and nimble hands, and with the prowess of an all-Black cast headlined by Sidney as Walter Lee Younger and Ruby Dee as his wife, Ruth, the play lit Broadway ablaze, even as it reordered theaters playbook. Before Raisin, the prevailing wisdom among the industrys power brokers was that white audiences would support an all-Black show only if it was a musical, with us shimmying and guffawing our way toward an enduring stereotype. The rapturous applause and repeated curtain calls, with a verklempt Lorraine urged by the roar to take her bow of validation, demonstrated otherwise. Never before, James Baldwin commented of the play, had so much of the truth of Black peoples lives been seen on stage. And it was Lloyd, God rest his soul, who had, in one way or another, molded every performer in that trailblazing production. For months before I connected with Lloyd, Warren often asked me, What are you looking for in a teacher? I never quite knew how to answer. Once Lloyd and I began training together, I realized Id been looking for a rock, which Lloyd provided. His method acting approach was not substantively different from what Id become familiar with up to then. But his manner of delivery, the patience with which he illuminated the tenets, the haven he created for actorshe became the Gibraltar that I and countless others stood upon. Stylistically, Lloyd was more copilot than captain, more laissez-faire than commander, a teacher who preferred his student to fly solo as he, reservedly in the wings, whispered cues during the route. He was less apt to deliver a sermon, more likely to raise a thoughtful question. Who is she? Lloyd would ask me about a character I was preparing to depict. What are the moments that have shaped her? He understood that meeting a character on the page was akin to making her acquaintance in life. To study that characterto insatiably pursue her backstory, to dissect her memories and her motivationswas to begin the process of becoming her. That is why, to this day, I read a script a hundred times over, steeping myself in the nuances of the character, searching for the silence between the notes in the melody of who she is. By the time I get on that stage, Ive lived in my characters skin so continuously that she often takes over my physical being. Where did that come from? I think when a gesture, a head tilt, or a smirk distinct from my own emerges. Lloyd laid the foundation for that to happen. These days when I talk to young people aspiring to the stage, I tell them, You can spend half your life trying to find the right teacher for you. Lloyd and I were simpatico from day one. Had I allowed Paul Mann to short-circuit my dream, I might have missed out on the blessing of Lloyd, whose artistic skill was eclipsed only by his kindness. In contrast to his business partner, he was, for me, a torchlight of integrity. In 1984, decades after my experience with Paul, eight actresses accused him of sexual assault. In a civil suit that landed in the State Supreme Court in Manhattan, the scales of justice leaned in the direction of the women. Paul was issued a guilty verdict and ordered to pay his victims $12,000 in total, a paltry $1,000 to $2,000 for each of them. Before his death in 1985, Paul had given much of his life to the theater, training artists and accruing accolades. History has recorded him as a celebrated teacher, one who prepared numerous luminaries for the stage. Yet in my book, he will forever be regarded as the man who, along my path toward Providence, hurled a brickone I picked up and threw aside. * * * As I dedicated myself to honing my craft, my baby arched her back toward adolescence. When Joan had left for boarding school at age ten, her period had not yet arrived. Given that my own had shown up when I was just nine, I thought her first sign of womanhood might be imminent. One thing I knew: I could not allow silence to do my teaching for me, as my own mom had. So ahead of her departure, I had pulled Joan close to me on my bedside, and together, we read through a book about menstruation. She listened intently and nodded, but she did not speakuntil a year later when she was home on Christmas break. Mommy, she said to me while we were on our way to the hairdresser, I got that thing you told me about. Her lips spread into a smile. I looked over at her. What thing, darling? I asked. You know, she said, that thing we read about in the bookmy period. Really? I said, embracing her. Yes, really, she said. In that moment, I couldnt help but feel like Id in some way traced over my mothers blunder, her costly restraint, with an improved way forward for Joan. My daughter neednt stumble her way through adolescence, piecing together natures truths without the benefit of a narrator. At the end of Joans break, I sent her to school well supplied with all that she needed to care for herself. And yet, I realize now, Joan needed far more than that from me. Our separations were gut-wrenching for both of us, but most especially for her. She longed, as any child would, to linger at my elbow, to be there for the nightly suppers, the homework sessions around a kitchen table, the impromptu mommy-daughter conversations. I will always remember the summer I traveled to Key West to film Carib Gold. Joan, then on break from school, wanted to accompany me on the road. I considered it, of course, yet in my heart, I knew the experience would be wholly unsatisfying for her and might force an even sharper wedge between us. The job of a professional actorthe script memorizing, the dashing to and fro on set, the disappearance into a characters interior worlddemands an enormous intensity of focus. Joan might have been there with me in the flesh, but with my head somewhere beyond the heavens, she would have missed me all the more. So I arranged for her to stay with my sister, Emily, during that breakand it was yet another parting that bowed her head. Mom, why cant I come back to New York and go to school here? Joan often asked me. With remorse lodged in my throat, I did not always know what to say to make her understand. Any explanation I gave sounded to Joan like an attempt to relegate her to the sidelines of my world, to prioritize my career over her. Joan viewed our situation the only way she then could, through a childs eyes, whereas I observed it under the unsparing light of adult pragmatism. As grievous as our distance was, I was doing what I felt I had to do in order to provide. Provision, in my mind, was the barometer that bested all other gauges, the litmus test by which my parenting would ultimately be measured. Am I able to give Joan everything she requires? Does the life I make possible for her improve upon the one my parents could offer me? I know now that Joan pined more for my presence than she did for my pocketbook. She needed my provision, yes, but decidedly more of the emotional sort, a cheek-to-cheek coexistence. I do not regret that I chose to earn a living in the manner in which I did, or that I arranged for Joan to attend school in a world miles north of mine. But I do mourn that my child, during the years she hungered to have me close, felt my absence so profoundly. My utmost, well intentioned as it was, fell short of her needs and desires. Joan began her freshman year of high school in the fall of 1956, around the time Carib Gold was released. I rarely view my own work and have watched only a handful of my own films. The gratification for me comes in the doing of the work, the creationthe embodying of a character so fully that the audience comes to believe, feel, see, smell, and taste her existence, climb into her reality, understand her humanity as a means for reflecting upon their own. That is where my satisfaction comes from. Once Ive played a character, that portrayal no longer belongs to me. It is an offering to those who witness the unveiling. The joy, for me, comes in the crafting of that gift, the choosing and the nurturing of it, and then in giving it away. Art, in a sense, is the transference of pleasure. And also, once Ive poured myself into a performance, I cant do anything more about itwhich is why I do not torture myself by viewing it. And yet, out of curiosity and excitement as a newcomer to the industry, I did see Carib. Words fall short in conveying the pure exhilaration you feel, as an artist, of watching your work flicker to life for the first time, of seeing this strange likeness of yourself crackling across a screen in Black and white. I will always remember the row of words at the bottom of the opening credits, recall how it sent chills through me to see my name there, standing tall and majestic: And introducing CICELY TYSON. Dubious as Id been, at moments, that this endeavor of mine would evolve into anything more than a recreational pursuit, there it was, indisputable in all caps, a confirmation that I was actually doing what Id set out to do. When an audience views a film, they experience the story on the screen. As an actress, I also recall the moments between the plotline, the occurrences off set. There were the myriad hours I spent tutoring with Lloyd, the trembling lips that brought me, over and over, to his doorway for help in developing Dottie. There was the weekend, while filming in Key West during Christmas, when Warren arranged for us to visit Cuba, before Fidel Castro wrested control from then-President Batista. That holiday was the first Id ever spent away from New York and family, and my scowl was evidence of that. In an effort to buoy my spirits, Warren accompanied me from Key West to Havana on a day-long sail, the breeze playing patty-cake with my hair, the smell of the sea, for a time, vanquishing my wistfulness for home. Ashore, we were welcomed by the sounds of Silent Night and Feliz Navidad floating between row houses, pigmented in an array of pastel fa?ades. Gorgeous as the island was, the ninety-degree temperatures failed to put me in the holiday spirit. At my insistence, Warren sent me home for New Years. Such memories are what flooded to mind when I saw Carib. Piercingly, what I also recalled was my childs sadness during my months of filming in Key West, how much we missed one another, how conflicted I often felt about our separation. When Joan finished middle school, I did move her back to the city to live with me for all four years of high school. When I needed to travel for work, such as during my time away filming Carib, she stayed in Mount Vernon with Emily and Reggie. By then, my sister and her husband had three children of their own, Maxine, Reginald, and Verna. Joans cousins became like siblings to her. Having Joan close slathered consolation on the wound created by our years apart. On weekends, we attended concerts and plays together. One of her favorite memories is the day I took her to see the film Madame Butterfly. And yet decades would pass before the bruise of our earlier separation received the light and air it needed to begin healing. I ache in reflecting upon it now; I ache that, though my choices were planted in the soil of my deep love for Joan, she nonetheless felt cast aside. I live with that sorrow. It is why, in part, I write so scarcely of her. Joan felt, as a child, that she had to share me with the world. I give her now, in adulthood, what my heart has always longed to bestowmy undivided focus, along with the full measure of her privacy. * * * The first time I wandered into a Broadway show, I was mesmerized. I was still new at the Red Cross then, long before the gold-watch epiphany. During the holiday season, we office clerks took to the streets, shaking coin-filled tin cans at passersby, hoping to collect donations for the nonprofit. I dont know why, but I was a nervous wreck rattling that darn can. Late one afternoon, I was assigned to raise my ruckus out in front of the Martin Beck Theatre on Forty-Fifth Street. The Crucible, Arthur Millers fictionalized drama of the Salem witch trials, happened to be in previews there. At the end of my shift and near the shows last act, I slipped through three sets of double doors and into the back of the theater. Ive never gotten over what I saw. Lord, what is this? I thought. I had no concept then of a professional stage production, had never even been inside of a playhouse. In my minds eye, I can still envision it: the eerily darkened amphitheater, the 1690s garb and the elaborate set, the lights shining down to dance upon the actors expressions, the row upon row of audience members, staring ahead in rapt attention. You misunderstand, sir, declared Walter Hampden, portraying the plays villain, Deputy-Governor Danforth. I cannot pardon these when twelve are already hanged for the same crime. It is not just. The whole scene felt, at once, deeply haunting and wondrously magical. Which is why, years later, when Warren pressed me to step toward such magic, my goose pimples made a comeback. Vinnette Carroll is planning to direct a play called Dark of the Moon, he told me a few months after Caribs release. Shes staging it at the Y in Harlem, and shes looking for a lead. You would be perfect. I stared at him perplexed, the same look I always give when Im scrambling to come up with reasons to decline. I cant do any play, I said. Ive never been on a stage in my life. Though I knew more about film than about live theater, Id glimpsed enough, while racing round town with Warren to shows, to be frightened I could not deliver. Movie filming involves take after take. In theater, there are no do-overs, no second or seventh chances. You either get it right in real time or you flounder and make a laughingstock of yourself. Warren, accustomed to my waffling, nonetheless insisted I meet Vinnette. Everyone in my circle knew of Vinnette. Even then, decades before her gospel-infused production of Your Arms Too Short to Box with God thundered onto Broadway in 1976, I regarded Vinnette as theater royalty, a Black female innovator amid a sea of white male faces. Shed grown up in a well-heeled Jamaican family, with a dentist father who pushed her toward medicine rather than the arts. She obliged him to a point by earning a doctorate in psychology from Columbia University, but her tug toward the stage proved too powerful to overcome. After studying with Stella Adler and Lee Strasberg, she acted for a time, even creating and touring her one-woman show. Yet amid a paucity of good roles for Black actors, she turned toward directing and teaching, joining the faculty of the prestigious High School of Performing Arts in New York. Her production of Dark of the Moon, Warren explained, would be a revival of the 1945 Broadway folk play about a witch boy, John, who yearns to become human after falling in love with a mortal girl, Barbara Allen. Vinnette would assemble an all-Black cast as part of the Harlem Ys Little Theater program. The dance numbers in the play, set to spirituals, would be choreographed by a young Alvin Ailey, then also in the middle of creating what would become his signature work, Revelations. Warren jotted down Vinnettes phone number and address and handed it to me. Go see her, he said. Shes expecting you. At the time of our appointment later that week, I arrived at Vinnettes townhouse at 864 Broadway in Flatiron. What happened next makes me shake my head at myself. As I entered the four-story building, I was so nervous to meet the director that I began yelling her name. Vinnette Carroll! I screamed like a squealing cat. Vinnette Carroll! On and on I shouted, one wooden staircase after the next, until I finally reached her doorway at the top. There she stood, tall and elegant with saucer-round eyes, hand on her hip and half-grinning as she searched my face. Whats the matter, Miss Cicely? she said in that robust voice of hers. Nothing, I responded. Well then why on earth are you screaming? I shrugged and snickered. Because I didnt know where you were, I said. Its a wonder she didnt send my silly tail back down those stairs and right out the door. I did not audition that day. Vinnette and I simply chatted, about this play and that one, about my experience in Carib, about that moment Id first encountered theater magic in Midtown. At some point I must have done a script reading for her. I dont recall. But soon after we connected, my misgivings melted away, as they were prone to do in Vinnettes affirming presence. Before I knew it, she and Warren had persuaded me to make my theater debut as Barbara Allen. Shed coach me, she promised, and supplement Lloyds guidance of me. I agreedand little has been the same in my life since. Lloyd and Vinnette were both theatrical masters, but they shepherded me in markedly different ways. Whereas Lloyd preferred a minimum effective dose of intervention, Vinnette took an interactive approach, one that included homework and built upon my childhood tendency to ask Why? During one of our sessions, Vinnette said to me, I want you to observe someone from afar and then create a backstory for her. People dont come out of nowhere. They have roots. Someones appearance and demeanor, she reasoned, offer clues to those beginnings, to the whys and hows of that persons present state. That notion becomes applicable when analyzing a character, when noticing how his or her story may manifest in every tic and sway, every lurch forward. Infusing a portrayal with such layers of truth is an actors greatest aspiration. I put my own handprint on that assignment by attempting what Id been doing since my earliest years: staring at peoples feet. On the train that week, I observed a Jewish woman, immaculately coiffed and manicured, with a lavish mink stole draped around her shoulders. I looked down. She had on saddle Oxfords, tattered around the edges, scuffed at the toe, with a bunion the size of a golf ball butting its head against the leather interior, threatening to break free. In that moment, I decided her wealth had to have been acquired. Perhaps she was a refugee whod escaped to the United States, seeking a better life as my parents once had. If shed been someone born into privilege, no way would she have donned such footwear or, for that matter, even boarded a subway car. I created a whole probable history for this woman based on those shoes, and submitted it to Vinnette. Very good, Miss Cicely, said Vinnette, using the name she always called me. I beamed. Vinnette taught me to learn technique and then to forget itand to resurrect it only if it served my portrayal. Technique is important, to the extent that it is undergirded by emotion. I once knew an actress who was a brilliant technician, but her portrayals fell flat. She could create a moment and bring it to fruition, yet it was apparent she wasnt feeling anything, and as a result, neither was her audience. What is required for such a moment is what Warren had been claiming I had naturally. Vinnette trained me to mine the quarries of that childhood emotion and offer the riches onstage. When youre a novice, its so important that whoever coaches you at that juncture knows what he or she is doing. Actors who find one great teacher in this business are blessed, do you hear me? God saw fit to smile on me twice. Once Vinnette gave me the script for Dark of the Moon, it did not leave my hands. I ate with it, bathed with it, slept with it, slow danced to its tune during every hour of every day. I want you to come for a table reading at the Y, Vinnette told me after wed been studying with one another for a time. I was such a theater rookie that Id never heard of a table reada gathering of the cast for a script run-through. On the afternoon I turned up, my fellow actors had already assembledand I didnt yet know a soul among them. Richard Ward and Isabel Sanford were on one side of the table. Clarence Williams III, Lea Scott, and Louise Stubbs sat on the other. I drew in a breath, clutched my script toward my chest, and took a place next to Roscoe Lee Browne, whod been cast as a preacher. The previous year, hed made his stage debut in a New York Shakespeare Festival production of Julius Caesar. When my turn came, I picked up the script, held it three inches from my face, and began muttering my lines. Roscoe smiled, reached over, and gently pulled my hands down. I returned his grin but then moved my hands back up and perched the script on top of my nose again. On and on this went for most of the reading: me burying my fears into the pages, him encouraging me to reveal my face. Finally, near the end of the reading, Roscoe pulled my hands away once more, touched the bottom of my chin, and tilted my head upward. You are going to be marvelous, he said in his deep baritone. Just marvelous. I giggled, partly because I felt awkwardand partly because I hoped God had heard Roscoe. As my stage debut grew closer, Emily told our mother I was to star in a play. Huh, she goin up there and make a fool of herself, Mom said in her thickest accent. Upon hearing this report from Emily, I called my mother and asked her to come to the shows opening night. At the time, I did not fully understand what compelled me to reach for the phone and dial my mom, particularly amid the gulf of unspoken hurts that had separated our worlds. Yet something in me wanted her there. Acting is, in part, about laying bare a characters soul, about allowing someones secret hopes and frailties to be, at long last, seen. I realize now, in reflecting upon it, that I longed simply for my mother to see me. That is all. I needed to know that this left turn Id taken, this calling Id followed, was worthy of her acknowledgment. To be seen in this life, truly observed without judgment, is what it feels like to be loved. Whoever else might have shown up at my play, there was no gaze of pride, no measure of applause that would have mattered more to me than that womans approval. That is why I invited her. And, perhaps because she was so stunned to hear from me, my mother immediately agreed to come. On opening night, boy, I was a heap of nerves. Before the show, I made sure I knew exactly where my mom and the friend accompanying her would sit, which was at the center of the theater and about ten rows back from the stage. If I so much as glanced in my mothers direction, if our eyes inadvertently crossed paths as I was performing, that would have been the end of me. Knowing her precise location, I reasoned, would allow me to avoid her stare. It would not, as I soon discovered, put her on mute. The lights faded and a hush swept the theater. The moment I emerged and took my place on the set, I could hear Moms voice instantly. Oh my God! she said to her friend in what she thought was a whisper. I assure you it was not. There she is! Theres my String Bean! The whole way through Act One, as I attempted to stay focused, I could hear her oooing and cooing, pointing out this prop and that one, and, as if creating a soundtrack to go along with the story line, laughing and drawing in deep breaths with her palm pressed over her heart. It just about drove me crazy. Still, I somehow managed to concentrate, and by Act Two Id even disappeared into my secret kingdom, that magical realm I withdraw to when a characters spirit washes through me. Barbara Allens words, the sentences and scenes Id rolled around on my tongue for so long, flowed effortlessly from my lips that evening. Acting, like every art form, is meant to transport its beholders, and the artist is frequently the first to make the journey. On my trip as Barbara Allen, I could speak. I could utter sentiments that I, Cicely Tyson, might never dare express. Revealing her interior world felt like unburdening my own, like emptying my soul of its every weight and care. It felt the way it did when I, playing a battered upright piano as a girl, moaned the words to old hymns that soothed my insides. It felt the way it had on that Sunday in church, decades earlier, when the saints had thrust me heavenward while I bellowed. On my first theater stage in a Harlem Y, I was that child once more, feet dangling from a chair, Holy Ghost sweeping through me. It felt like finding a sense of freedom I hadnt known I was in search of. To the very last scene, Mom kept right on talking. After the audience bathed me in warm applause, I eventually found my way to the exit where the crowd was filing out. There stood my mother, with her pillbox hat and Sunday pocketbook, beaming as she accepted congratulatory remarks on my behalf. Yes, I always knew, ever since she was a little girl, that she was going to be an actress, she claimed. She liked to sing and to dance, and . . . Now wait a minute, I thought. This is the same mother who put me out of her house, the woman who would not speak to me because I wanted to act. And now shes out here telling this barefaced story to these people? I found it so unbelievable that I stared at her and burst into laughter. All these years later, Im still shaking my head. I think now that my mothers pivot had nothing to do with a shift in her perspective. The devil, as she saw it, lived not just in the details, but also along the boulevards and byways of my business. Her view had not changed in that regard. Still, whether my mother admitted it to me forthrightly, which she did not on that evening, her behavior had rendered her opinion, handed down a verdict of validation. As shed observed me from her place in the audience, open-mouthed and spellbound, shed seen me as she could not have before, in that way you can see a thing only when you pull back from it, when you step away so you can marvel at its entirety. In panning out, shed recognized me, for the first time, not just as a daughter to be lorded over, but as a vessel bearing a gift. And the heavenly Father, for reasons then unknown to both of us, had chosen to grace me with the seed of it.
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  • Mans Search for Meaning /     (by Viktor E. Frankl, 1946) -   Mans Search for Meaning /
  • Thumbelina /  (Disney, 2014)    Thumbelina /
  • Mulan /  (Disney, 2012)    Mulan / (Disney, 2012)
  • Peter Pan Comes to London /      (Disney, 2011)    Peter Pan Comes to London /

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