It takes an obsession to spice up a life, give it tang and drive. Mine began one day when I was twelve and I was riding with my father in his gig, a light two-wheeled carriage that he delighted to drive about the city in, eyeing the traffic and the crowds. Turning off busy Broadway down a side street, he showed me a long row of houses built smack against one another, all brown, like chocolate cakes squeezed thin.
“See those houses, Junius? Those are brownstones. That’s where the gentry live.”
I stared in awe. Those were the homes of the white folks who ran the city of New York. From that moment on, those long rows of houses, with stoops rising grandly to majestic portals flanked by tall front windows, struck me as rich, mys- terious, and forbidden. I was hooked.
My father was Augustus Caesar Fox, the fanciest barber in the city. He was born a freeman here, since his father, Jeremiah Fox, a barber in Baltimore, had bought his freedom from his master and moved up here to New York about the turn of the century. My father was also called Dandy Fox because, away from his barbershop, he dressed in the height of fash- ion and paraded up and down among the fashionables of Broadway, driving a spirited horse hitched to his shiny gig, its top down, and sporting a smart brown frock coat and a well-brushed, tall silk hat. He called this “getting the feel of the town.” “There goes Dandy Fox!” the white folks on the sidewalk would exclaim with a smile, thinking he was mock- ing the uppity fashionables, though I suspect he was up to something else as well: to see if it was safe for him, a black man, to be out and about; my father was no fool.
Poppa’s barbershop, on a downtown side street just off Broadway, was fronted by a boldly lettered sign: AUGUSTUS FOX, A KNIGHT OF THE COMB. There, in an immaculate white shirt and black bow tie, he received his cus- tomers—merchants, aldermen, bankers, and on occasion the mayor himself—cloaking them in a great white sheet as he trimmed and shaved them in the latest fashion, while offering small talk about anything and everything. So brisk was business, he added two more chairs and hired assistants; his was the premier shop in the city.
When she had errands to do, my mother often left me there. A quiet child, I settled snugly in a corner, content to watch the scene. I remember keenly the clip clip of my father’s polished silver shears, wielded deftly in an aroma of musk and talcum that blended with the fragrance of fine cigars smoked by patrons awaiting their turn in the chairs. Older, I was allowed to sweep up the shorn locks of the gentry, and when, trimmed and pomaded, they stepped down from the chair, I gave them a quicwhisk with a brush, receiving from them a tip of small change with a cheery remark and a smile. When they strode forth from the shop, grasping a cane or a tasseled walking stick and topped by a towering hat, I recognized the strut and scent of power. These were the residents of brown- stones, a realization that fueled my obsession even more.
Needless to say, my family didn’t live in a brownstone, or in any of the elegant brick row houses that preceded them. They lived in an old frame house on Minetta Lane in Greenwich Village, in the district known as Little Africa. My father and his sisters Bessie and Dilly had grown up there, and there, when he was twenty-six, my father came down bad with a fever, got hallucinations, tossed in bed, and moaned. In the flush of fever he saw a beautiful young black woman standing beside the bed who announced, “I be come to heal you.” In his delirium he imagined her hanging bulbs of garlic over his bed, murmuring prayers or incantations, and putting her soft hand on his brow. Finally he drifted off to sleep, and when he woke up, the fever was gone. Standing right there beside him, real as rain, was the loveliest young woman he had ever seen, in a brightly colored patchwork dress, with soft gray eyes that gazed with a soothing warmth.
“You be healed,” she said.
Over the bed hung bulbs of garlic.
“You leave them bulbs three days, so as to wind up the work of the healin’. Then you can get up and range about like always.”
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Before he could speak, she was gone. And he had fallen in love.
Minerva Stokes had never been summoned by the fam- ily; she just showed up at the door. She was so soft-spoken and poised that Jeremiah let her in and, at her insistence, left her alone for the healing. It took all of four hours till the fever broke. Jeremiah, retired now and a widower in his sixties, praised the Lord and sent the healer away with a sack of onions, a pink conch shell, and a pair of live trussed geese.“That woman,” he told his daughters Bessie and Dilly, “has the Power. She must walk in the light of the Lord.”
“But who is she?” asked Bessie, a question she’d be asking for years.Augustus was wondering, too. The moment he got his strength back, he was up and out of there hunting all over Greenwich Village, till he found her living with a bunch of young women in a boardinghouse on MacDougal Street, where he sparked her something fierce till at last she agreed to marry him.
“But mind you, Gus, I’ve got to be free for the healin’. It’s been put on me by the Lord.”
They were married in the Greater New Tabernacle Baptist Church, where Bessie and Dilly were members and sang real loud in the choir. Friends of Momma’s attended, but no kin.
“I comes from far away,” she explained; “ain’t got no kin in the city.” After the ceremony she seemed minded never to set foot in the church again.
“Ain’t she a Christian woman?” asked Bessie. “Seems not,” said Dilly.
Himself no churchgoer, my father paid no heed, but it was the beginning of a long to-do.
When they learned that I was on the way, Bessie and Dilly fussed a lot over Momma, asking every five minutes how she felt, if she’d want a midwife to ease the misery, and, when it was time, black pepper tea to bring on the labor.
“Don’t need no Bessie or Dilly,” Momma told Poppa, “and don’t need no midwife neither. Women of my family, we always birth alone.” Which was the second and last time she ever mentioned her family.
Years later, Poppa told me how it went. First, Momma had them clear all the “junky stuff” out of the front bedroom— chairs, stools, sharp objects—so as to make for an easy deliv- ery. Then, when her time came, she shooed them all out of the room and walked round and round the bed, holding her belly in both hands. When the pains got fierce, she crept up on the bed, muttered something from Scripture (Poppa heard her through the wall), pushed, and I just popped right out.
When they heard my cries, Poppa and his sisters rushed in and oohed and wept for joy, while Momma said over and over, “Sweet Jesus, thanks.” And that’s how I got born.
Momma named me Junius, which was fine by all. But two years later, when my sister was born—no midwife, just the walk and a push—she named her Angel Blue.
“What kind of a name is that?” said Bessie, out of her hearing.
“Nothin’ blue about her,” said Dilly. “Like us, she’s black as night.”
“And to judge by all that screamin’,” Bessie added, “she ain’t no angel either!”
But Momma had her way. Then, when my sister got out of the toddler stage, Momma started calling her Cecilia, and we all said “Cissy” for short.
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After Cissy there were two more births, but the babies died right off. Momma never talked about it; it hurt.
All through the years of our growing, Momma was doing the healing. If any of us got a cut, she used cobwebs to clot the blood; for burns she just laid on her hand, while murmuring some verse from the Bible; and for tummy aches she gave us wild cherry bark tea. All her remedies worked.
Word got round. At any hour of the day or night, black folks would come to see her, and sometimes white folks, too. She saw them in a side room where she had bottles of liquids and powders ranged on a shelf, and sometimes she went down to the cellar, where dried herbs hung from the rafters, and fetched up something that she ground in a mor- tar and pestle. All through the house there were smells of camphor and ginger and garlic, and other smells I didn’t know, some sharp, some soft and soothing. “It stinks in here,” said Bessie. “Never mind,” said Grandpa Jeremiah. But all too often Momma was called away to see someone sick in bed and might be gone for hours. “She be doin’ the healin’,” said Poppa, and that was all that mattered. Cissy and I knew that Momma loved us—we could tell it from her warm gray eyes, her soft-touching hands, and the songs she sang us— but she was away a lot and we missed her. Her bright patch- work dresses were known to black folks all over town. “She’s a walkin’ quilt,” said Aunt Bessie, who favored somber dresses all of a hue.
There were seven of us in that house on Minetta Lane, so for a few years we were pretty cramped up. Momma and Poppa had the front second-floor bedroom, and Aunts Bessie and Dilly shared the other one in back, so Grandpa Jeremiah and Cissy and I had to sleep in the garret. The house had a pitched roof with dormer windows that poked out front and back. Grandpa, a handsome old man of great dignity with tufts of gray-white hair, had a small bedroom facing the yard in back, and snored a lot; Cissy and I each had a small bedroom in front, with a dormer window facing the street. The garret was hot in summer and cold in winter; there were no fireplaces up there, and on frigid mornings the water in the pitchers froze. But we were lucky to have a house of our own. Lots of black people lived thereabouts, to be near their jobs with the white gentry in the fancy houses on Washington Square, but most of them were lodged in seedy boarding- houses that made our house look grand.
After a while both our aunts got married and moved out— Bessie first, then Dilly, since whatever Bessie did, Dilly was sure to follow; I have only a dim memory of the weddings. Grandpa Jeremiah moved down into their bedroom, where his snores still shook the house. He had a way of saying things to me that I only half understood.
“Junius, white folks are strange. It’s hard livin’ with ’em, but it’s even harder livin’ without ’em. So, make your peace with that.”
“Junius, your momma has the Power. Don’t try to understand it; honor it.”
“Junius, in this world things ain’t what they seem.” “Junius, be strong.”
Then he’d stretch out a leg so I could straddle it and play “horsey.”
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Grandpa Jeremiah walked with a cane but otherwise seemed healthy. So, we were all surprised and shocked when, one warm summer night, he died in his sleep. At the funeral the sisters grieved their hearts out, while Poppa cried softly, holding Momma’s hand. For Cissy and me, the only children present, it was awesome. We couldn’t get over how Grandpa had always just been there day after day, and now he wasn’t, and never would be again. There was a big hole torn in our lives.
At Poppa’s insistence I attended the African Free School, where a young black teacher, Mr. Walsh, taught us reading, penmanship, grammar, arithmetic, geography, and a smattering of history. Poppa had had a few years of schooling there; he wanted me to have more. “Education,” Mr. Walsh kept telling us, “is the way for our people to raise themselves up out of slavery and its long, dark night of ignorance. You’re lucky to be here; think of your brothers in bondage down South. Study hard. Learn!” He kept a hickory switch in the top drawer of his desk, but he didn’t need it much; most of us weren’t rambunctious. It was there that I first got a taste for reading; books would be important in my life.
Every day Mr. Walsh dinned it into us how we must mea- sure up to the high standard of those who had studied there before us: ministers and educators and successful merchants who made up the city’s black elite. This was my first aware- ness of class within the black community.
“Oh yes,” Poppa told me, “there’s black gentry—a few— just like the white gentry they imitate. They put on airs and want to lift up all the rest of us and show the white folks what we’re worth.”
Poppa made it pretty clear that we weren’t gentry, and that’s the way he wanted it.
Hanging on the schoolroom wall was a big framed print, PARADIGMS OF VICE AND VIRTUE, that Mr. Walsh often referred to with a pointer. In the center foreground was a schoolhouse, and from its door two paths ran out, one to the right and one to the left. The one to the right, “Obedience to Parents and Teachers,” led to a steepled church, then past neat little cottages labeled Industry, Faith in Christ, and Humility straight on to the Sweet Waters of Truth and the Mount of Righteousness, where earthbound mortals raised their arms beseechingly toward light shining down from above, where there were soaring angels and the words “Eternal Life.”
The path to the left, “Disobedience to Parents and Teach- ers,” meandered past squalid houses labeled Swearing, Lust, Gambling, Intemperance, Fighting, Adultery, and Murder, to a huge, somber building marked State Prison, with a gallows and a dangling corpse beside it. Finally it ended in a blotch of darkness where frock-coated gentlemen and ladies with para- sols were hurtled into the bonfire of hell. All in all, I decided that I’d rather take the path to the right.
“Bunkum!” whispered Lester Odysseus Hicks, the boy sitting next to me, who on other occasions whispered “Bosh!” or “Folderol!” or “Piffle!”—all words that fascinated me because I’d never heard them before. A short boy with pointed teeth (rather like a rat’s, I thought), Lester interested me, not just by virtue of his impressive full name, or because he was enlarging my vocabulary, but because he kept in his pockets and furtively revealed to me a choice set of marbles, a rabbit’s foot, a slingshot, and a rolled-up rubber sheath called the French Secret that he assured me made safely possible the most delectable of pleasures. For Mr. Walsh’s Paradigms of Vice and Virtue, he exhibited the utmost contempt.
“All the fun things are on the path to hell. The Eternal Life stuff is a bore!”
Which first planted in my mind, however tentatively, the suspicion that these matters might not be so simple.
On our trips home after school, Lester told me that his father, a coachman, was privy to the secrets of the rich, who did shocking things in private. He often teased me for being such a goody-goody (unlike him, I had never felt Mr. Walsh’s switch), then enticed me into games of marbles that, owing to his superior skill, left in his possession the few I had man- aged to accumulate. For at least one of us, it was a rich and rewarding friendship. A born adventurer, he would be challenging and provoking me for years.