Chapter One: Jean's Kitchen: Finding the Right Pot
Jean assigned every meal a different pot. Eggs could be scrambled in the frying pan but not in the black cast-iron skillet that was used for heavy-duty frying or to make her favorite roux. No one dared stir anything other than the assigned meal in one of Jean's pots, pans or skillets. My mother taught me how to cook with grease.
I was born on December 15, 1959, at 8:53 A.M., Donna Lease Brazile, in Charity Hospital in New Orleans. I was the third child. My older sisters, Cheryl and Sheila, had arrived in 1957 and 1958. Two years later, in 1961, my parents, Lionel and Jean Brazile, had my brother Lionel Jr., whom we called "Teddy Man." My mother gave birth every year after that, until there were nine -- six girls and three boys. The doctors at Charity Hospital tied something in a knot in October 1966. I am sure my father lit a candle and read a novena to St. Michael before the procedure was completed.
Hot, sweltering hot, that's my hometown of Kenner, Louisiana. Back then the city of Kenner was a bedroom enclave located in the suburbs of New Orleans, about a twenty-minute drive west of the historic French Quarter. It was a small town and the neighborhood in which I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s had the feel of a closely knit village. Kenner is bordered by Lake Pontchartrain to the north, the Mississippi River to the south and an unnamed nest of swampland to the west. Along with the terrible heat and scorching humidity, God blessed us with daily showers -- enough rain to wet the sidewalks, quench the thirst of our vegetables growing out back, and moisten our beautiful rose bushes in the front yard, but not enough to alter the blazing temperature. After one of those delightful showers, Kenner turned into a reptile farm, overrun with frogs, turtles, snakes and other small, ugly creatures.
I grew up afraid of these swamp creatures (about the only living things that managed to terrify me), especially after a nice downpour. When the coast was clear and the kids were allowed to go out and play, someone would scream and holler "snake!" and panic would set in all over the house. If my father was home, he would go to his room and pull out his old rusty gun, a Colt .45, and shoot the slimy creature, all to the delight of my brothers and sisters and me. My mother never bothered to come to the door to look at the reptile. Instead, she'd yell, "Get y'all asses back in the house."
In Kenner, where you lived in relation to the railroad tracks was your destiny. My family didn't just live on the proverbial "other side of the tracks." No, we lived behind two sets of tracks. The middle-class Blacks lived between the main highway -- Airline Highway -- and the working poor, like my family, lived behind the double railroad tracks. So in a way, if you really do the math correctly, we lived behind three sets of tracks pushed up against the banks of the Mississippi River.
We lived at 529 Filmore Street, and every now and then the train heading from New Orleans on the way up north or west would stop and people in their cars had to wait for the train to pass. White people would be stuck on our street and we would sit on the porch and study them. We studied their cars, their hairdos and their demeanors. We wanted to know if they were afraid of us, and we tried everything we could think of to get them to talk to us, but they never even looked our way. Back then, Kenner was about 30 percent African American and 70 percent Caucasian. Segregation was fading as law but was still in place as practice. There was definitely a White Kenner and a Black Kenner.
The airport when I was growing up was called Moisant, but it was later renamed Louis Armstrong International Airport after the world-famous jazz trumpeter who was one of Louisiana's most famous sons. Everybody in Kenner, just about, had some connection with the airport. Whites lived in its immediate shadow near Williams Boulevard, the center of commerce and Kenner's main street.
But on my side of town most folks were poor or working class. My mother did domestic work for the Hilberts, starting out at about fifty dollars a week and topping off near the end of twenty years of service at maybe one hundred dollars, without any Social Security or other benefits. My mom started work at 7:00 in the morning and got off at 4:00 P.M. She had to clean, cook and get Mrs. Hilbert's children ready for school. Some of Mrs. Hilbert's children thought my momma was their momma because, in fact, she raised them. My mother went to work with a group of other women in our neighborhood, Miss Lois Jean and Miss Beulah, all of them domestic workers who cleaned and kept house for the wealthy White families who lived uptown, around St. Charles Avenue in the city. St. Charles Avenue was a beautiful area of stately homes that had once been plantations, with streets lined with trees dripping with moss. The men in my neighborhood were often day laborers or longshoremen. I grew up around men and women who worked long and hard with their hands and who never had too much to show for all their hard work, except an occasional new car.
There were men like Mr. Jumel Gant who lived next door to us -- he was a bricklayer. My parents didn't have a car, so every time my mother was about to give birth, Mr. Jumel, who somehow was always home, would take my mother to the hospital in his truck -- after he'd go and get her a pack of Salem Light cigarettes. The only time my mother smoked was right before and right after she gave birth. And Mr. Jumel was always there. He was there for the birth of at least seven out of the nine kids, including me, always getting my mother to Charity Hospital on time. There was also Mr. Paul Davis who lived across the street and drove the yellow school bus, and Mr. Joe Daigs who was a preacher and owned the corner grocery store on Filmore Street. Mr. Joe sold penny candies, pickles, pigs' lips, soft drinks, cold meats, aspirin and liniment for the older folks. He also owned a yellow school bus and had a church, the Community Missionary Baptist Church, up the street from our house. Although Mr. Joe and his wife, Mrs. Mary, had no children of their own, they were like surrogate parents to all the kids in the neighborhood. These were the people who made my part of Kenner often feel like one big extended family.
Poverty was a fact of life when I was growing up. Poverty meant we ate government "commodity" food, like yellow cheese, canned meats, grains, peanut butter and other surplus items. It meant my paternal grandmother, Grandma, made all the clothes for us kids, and I mean everything except our underwear! My parents never told us we were poor. We never discussed it, because they could usually make ends meet between paychecks or borrow from someone in the family. If we lacked something important, we got it when they got paid or during the holidays when our aunts and uncles would pitch in. We learned to wait and that patience was a virtue. We learned to do without and it never bothered us or consumed our daily existence.
One way to somehow feel rich even when you weren't was to cook delicious meals and share with other families in the neighborhood. My mother or Grandma would prepare a big pot of red beans and rice every Monday (laundry day), along with ham hocks, smoked sausages, garlic, onions and bell peppers. After we cooked the rice and made lettuce-and-tomato salad, the neighbors would bring over their plates and talk about their day at work. Cooking was therapy for women and men alike. The cook got a chance to work out his or her private blues and talk about the local news and politics. I enjoyed sitting in the kitchen helping my mother or Grandma cook up dishes and listening to the gossip.
When times were bad, especially around the holidays, we could always find something to prepare for dinner by fishing in the Mississippi River, Lake Pontchartrain or one of the many local gutters. Catfish, trout, croakers, crawfish or plain old shrimp -- my mother would just batter it up and fry it in the old black skillet. It always came out spicy good and tasty, especially with some Cajun hot sauce on the side. Life seemed to revolve around cooking, sharing meals and telling great stories about the old days. We learned so much in the kitchen about life listening to those stories from our parents or grandparents about growing up in the South.
We had little, if any, money. Not only did my parents not own a car, they didn't even have driver's licenses. We caught the bus everywhere or walked. To visit our maternal grandparents, our mother instructed us early on how to get around Kenner and New Orleans. For the nine of us, learning how to catch a bus downtown was a big deal. Back then, the hour-long bus ride out of Kenner using the Jefferson or Airline Highway, along with a transfer to one of the uptown buses on Claiborne or Tulane Avenue, became a major highlight of my life.
If we were lucky, our mother, who was raised "in the city," would call up her dad or one of her relatives -- like Pa Henry, Cousin Sullivan, her sister Aunt Gwen or brothers Uncle Johnny, Uncle Floyd or Uncle Douglas (and one of his many girlfriends) -- to come pick up all nine of us, plus my mother, and drive us to her mama's house on Valence Street, between St. Charles Avenue and Freret Street in New Orleans. If we traveled by car, I, as one of the oldest kids, had to sit close to the window. Once in position, I had to allow two of my younger siblings to sit on each knee. We never complained about being packed into a car. It was great to leave Kenner to see our relatives in the city.
Poverty affected nearly every part of my childhood, even my mother's attitudes about playtime. As soon as she came home from work, she forced all of us inside the house. This seemed like a contradiction. How could we enjoy our childhood while forced to stay inside most of the time? If it wasn't the scorching heat or the unpredictable downpours, my mother was afraid that we would get hurt from playing rough games or catch a rare cold during the winter months. She made it clear that we could not "afford to get sick." This bothered me no end as a child. If we did get sick, Grandma would take out one of her old homemade remedies and force it down our throats, and she also believed in taking the necessary precautions, like castor oil in the late summer to rid our bodies of toxins. Another favorite was using spiderwebs to heal a deep cut or placing a piece of fatback in our shoes to avoid swelling from a rusty nail or splinter. The fear of having to go to Grandma for a remedy was enough to scare me and my siblings into good health most of the time, or at least keep us from complaining of being sick.
We couldn't waste money. We couldn't mess up our school clothes or our play clothes. Our mother made us aware of the fact that we could not waste anything because there were people even poorer than us, which we couldn't believe. Gluttony was a sin my mother preached against all the time. She set an example of generosity, even under pressure, by feeding the neighbors' kids even when we didn't have enough for a second helping of corn bread and collard greens or shrimp jambalaya. My mother never missed an opportunity to tell us we had to learn how to share and give back in order to receive God's blessings. We were poor, but it wasn't the kind of poverty that made us go out on the street corner to beg for money or become a ward of the state.
We lived paycheck to paycheck, even with my father working two and sometimes three jobs. We had no rainy-day fund or savings account, but we had credit -- lots of credit -- with various corner stores. We managed because my mother was extremely disciplined and raised us to be quite frugal. Living in Grandma's house also helped. Grandma was a rock. She was always there to pitch in and help my parents fill the gap.
I didn't care much about toys -- we couldn't get what we really wanted anyway until they were on sale. Instead of store-bought Easter baskets we used shoe boxes and filled them with boiled eggs, chocolate, candy and treats. Sometimes, to get a little extra money, my mother would take out a loan for five hundred dollars and pay it back at 20 percent interest. With terms like that, we kids simply did without. We learned at an early age the thing that was most important -- family.
There was one Christmas when we got lucky. The driver of a Schlitz beer truck was speeding down Filmore Street and didn't see the train coming. Attempting to avoid hitting the train, the truck driver slammed on the breaks, hit a nearby post and landed in the ditch. Fortunately no one was hurt, not the passengers, the train conductor or the driver of the truck, but cases of beer spilled out all over the tracks. The train had been carrying bags of flour, which were also now spilling out. Word spread like wildfire and everybody brought wagons, bicycles, boxes, anything they could rustle up quickly to haul off their share of the beer and flour. That was a good Christmas. Aunt Adele and Pinkey, my father's older sisters, came over to get a couple of cases of beer. The adults had beer and the kids had buttermilk biscuits and we all felt like the richest people on earth.
Our home was built in 1947 by my father's older brother Ebbie and his friends. My dad's father, Grandpa Louis, had purchased the lumber from the Holloway Home Wrecking Company, which sold used wood from Camp Plauche Barracks located down the road in Harahan, near the river. It was an old, two-bedroom white wooden house. My parents paid most of the bills and made all the repairs while Grandma kept up the property taxes and kept the phone in her husband's name. Aunt Ethel, my father's oldest sister, and her family built the second home in 1956 next door. Aunt Ethel was also my godmother and she treated me as one of her own grandchildren. Her only child, Ethel Mae, and her five children lived at 531 Filmore with Aunt Ethel. This made us -- the Brazile and Henderson clans -- one gigantic extended family.
Early on I slept with Cheryl and Sheila, my two older sisters, in the bottom bed and Teddy Man and Chet, another brother, slept above us. And the baby of the year would sleep with my parents, plus the baby to come or the baby who had just been born. My grandmother would always allow one of us to sleep with her. I eventually slept in my grandmother's wooden four-poster queen-size bed with her until I was about twelve. Sometimes my little sister Lisa, whom we called "Little Red," would squeeze in with us or anyone who felt sick and needed Grandma's special medicine.
The center of the house, maybe even the soul, was our bouvetroire, or den. In Louisiana lingo, the bouvetroire is the room in the house where people go and kick back, relax, get their groove on, drink beer and spend the evening telling tall tales and lies. Children were allowed to sit and watch TV, but if company came we had to depart. And as hard as my father worked, when he was home, he played music all night long in his bouvetroire. If he was in a good mood, sometimes he would let us kids come in while he listened to Otis Redding, The Platters, Sam Cooke, Nancy Wilson, Aretha Franklin -- all the records that my mom had bought on Canal Street or Uptown on Magazine Street. Music and laughter filled the house on those nights. My parents loved showing us off and our visitors would watch us dancing and showing off for their entertainment.
Being a good Catholic, my father had his altar right outside his bouvetroire, in a little alcove. There was the altar and there were two tiers so you could kneel and pray before it. It was a little scary, but no one dared drink or curse in front of the altar. My father built it himself from looking at some religious magazine. It was a long, narrow piece of wood covered with a nice piece of linen. He had all sorts of statues of St. Anthony, the Blessed Mother Mary, St. Michael and several crucifixes all throughout the house. With twelve mouths to feed, Lionel Brazile needed all the prayers and all the help he could get. Prayer was a daily act for all of us. It was mandatory.
Despite his prayers, my parents still argued a lot about money. My father would get home on a Friday afternoon or when he got paid once a month, on the twenty-fifth. He would give my mother his check and she would cash it at Lloyd's Furniture Store or Burton Pharmacy. Later, he would come back home and tell her that he wanted his cut. My mom would always shortchange him, giving him five or ten dollars. If he asked for more to buy a new pair of working shoes or a new pair of khakis or jeans, all hell would break loose. My mother would grill him about whether he really needed them, reminding him that he had nine kids to feed and clothe and they came first, but he wanted his money and he would start cursing until he got what he wanted. These confrontations usually started in their bedroom, but they quickly spread through the house. There was Jean -- a tiny woman with a big voice -- hands on her hips, begrudging Lionel an extra dollar that she feared would take food out of the mouths of her children. She was facing off against Lionel -- tall, muscular and six foot four -- who probably just needed to feel like he controlled some small part of what happened to his paycheck. They argued, loud and long. And sometimes they fought. My father liked to throw things -- always missing his target, but the point was made. He was in control. My mother never backed down. She threw things back. We watched in horror.
Early on I became the mediator, the peacekeeper between my parents. I was a big kid, a leader among my sisters and brothers, and everybody thought I was strong. My big mouth, my take-charge ways, my bossiness, and my "old" spirit earned me this often thankless task no one else felt up to. In the wake of or just before one of their arguments, I would sit in the kitchen and listen to my father, half sleepy and mumbling, complain about my mom. My job was to sit and listen and absorb his pain and anger. When I got older I would let my mother sleep in my place with Cheryl until he calmed down, and then I would wake her up and tell her it was safe to go to bed now. The next morning it was back to school or work. They rarely stayed mad with each other.
My father was so angry, so angry. But it wasn't about my momma. It was about his life as a Black man who spent eighteen months being cold in the hills of Korea. He was a proud army veteran and often talked about the war. Hell, I didn't care, but someone had to listen to him. He never complained about the White man, about racism, but his drinking and the fights with my mom said it all: what it meant to be a proud veteran locked into low-paying jobs, locked into poverty, and not being able to see any way out. He'd look at me and say, "I spent eighteen months in the hills of Korea. I don't take shit from nobody." He'd survived Korea but no one cared about that now, and this made him very upset.
On the worst nights, my father would remind us that he had a gun, and how good he was with it. In response I would tamp down my own fear and meekly agree, saying, "That's right, Lionel, you have six rounds in that gun and there are nine children, Jean, plus Grandma. I'm sure whoever is left standing will shoot you." And I'd keep him talking. He had worked for Boh Brothers Construction Company helping to pave roads and repair bridges. Then a crane hit him, injuring his back, and he was off recuperating for almost a year and a half without any workers' compensation. I don't think he ever recovered from that. Afterward, when he could no longer work in construction, he had to work two and three jobs in addition to his job as a cook at Dobb's House at the airport to come near to what he had been making at construction work. It took a lot out of him. There were times we didn't see my father until late at night because he worked literally from sunup to sundown. But I was the one who was the linchpin, keeping him and my mother from falling apart. Our family, in order to survive, had to stick together.
My mother, Jean, came from a middle-class background. Although she enrolled at Southern University in Baton Rouge, she was the only one of her six brothers and sisters who didn't graduate from college. She had completed two years of college at Southern University, but dropped out to marry Lionel, a lean, handsome basketball player and veteran, a ladies' man with an outrageous sense of humor. They met, fell in love, married and moved into my father's mother's house on Filmore Street. They met just upon his return from Korea, where he was sent at eighteen. He was still in high school when he received his draft papers. Healthy but a poor pupil, Lionel was drafted into combat and came home to start his life all over again.
My dad was a star basketball player. He was a good ballplayer with many scholarship opportunities to play at area colleges before leaving for Korea. Upon his return, Grandma persuaded him to go back to school to get his high school diploma, and this is when he met Jean. One sunny day, my mom was walking across campus to class and saw my dad. She walked straight up to him and asked him out to the prom. He said, "I'll think about it." Later, dressed up in their fancy clothes and new shoes and car-less, my parents started courting and fell in love. Two years later, they were married.
My mother's family definitely felt that she had married "down." They felt sorry for her and for us, too. Some people marry for money or for lust, but my momma married for love, there was no question about it. She preached to us not to marry beneath ourselves, but we felt that's what she had done. My mother's family, the Browns, and the Braziles couldn't have been more different.
It always seemed as if my mother's brothers and sisters had perfect lives. We liked them. With so many aunts and uncles on both sides, we could always play favorites. Whenever we went to visit her mother, whom we called "Jean's mama," Jean made us promise to tell everyone that we had eaten before we left home. We could never appear to be greedy. Jean's mama always arranged for someone to bring us to her house in a car, and my mother would stubbornly turn down the offer, saying she didn't mind bringing us to 2304 Valence Street on the bus.
They say charity begins at home and with Jean's family it did. Aunt Zeola (nicknamed Trish), one of Jean's younger sisters, every Christmas would send us crushed-velvet dresses that she bought at Sears. She lived outside of Chicago in Kankakee, Illinois. Both Trish and Uncle Joe, her husband, were schoolteachers. We had to go parade in front of Jean's mama with our new dresses and clothes. I hated it. Trish always sent me a red or purple dress and I hated loud-colored clothes. At Jean's mama's house we couldn't sit on the good furniture and almost everything was covered in plastic. We'd sit on the floor and wait until the grown-ups told us we could come to the back where they were talking and drinking. It wasn't like at our house, where we could run around the house and be in the company of the grown-ups and listen to their conversations.
Food was always plentiful when the family knew we were coming. My mother fed us before leaving home because she didn't want us to act like we were hungry; we were well behaved and followed all of Jean's rules. When we visited her brother Uncle Johnny, his wife, Marva, made the most delicious cakes and sweets, which earned her the nickname Cupcake, but Aunt Marva's Creole gumbo was always weaker than our gumbo, which was made with okra and andouille sausage. You could always see straight through Aunt Marva's gumbo pot, which is a bad sign. When you stirred it up there was hardly any stock or roux to keep the ingredients together. Sometimes her shrimp or chicken parts floated to the top. So we barely ate Aunt Marva's gumbo, not after eating the real thing at home. Uncle Johnny would make the most delicious-looking shish kebabs for the grown-ups but us kids got hot dogs. When we visited Jean's relatives we were always full of pride because we didn't like anyone talking behind our backs. So as we got older and were able to eat more, my mother just told us to take po' boy sandwiches, fresh fruit and canned sodas when we visited her side of the family.
But when we visited the Braziles they had feasts. A little laid back and comical, their attitude was get as fat as you want to, as Black as you want to, drink as much beer as you want to -- we don't care. Do whatever you please. And Lionel's family cut a rug. We'd arrive and they'd say, "Uh oh, it's time to shake a tail feather." The Braziles could drink you under the table, force you to eat everything they cooked and then send you home with leftovers.
Although my mother was raised Baptist, she raised us in a very strict Catholic way. We had to work every day; our chores were laid out, from washing dishes to hanging up the clothes outside. No exceptions were made. We were well disciplined and there was no room for error. Jean was the commander in chief, that's the phrase she used, and she would tell us in a minute that if we didn't like it, we could leave. We called our parents by their first names, Jean and Lionel. My sister Cheryl started it, the rest of us followed suit, and as strict as they were on other things, my parents didn't mind this unconventional way of addressing them. Jean never went to church but sent us to Mass every Sunday, regardless of the weather. The ten o'clock Mass was our favorite because the priest often talked in Latin. Jean sent us off on Sunday morning with a nickel to put in the collection plate. But we'd go to the store on the way to Mass, break that nickel down to five pennies, put our pennies together and buy a snowball and share it. We gave God a penny. We loved Him and promised to give more when we could afford it.
Jean began her day at the crack of dawn. The rooster out back was our alarm clock. Like most of our neighbors, we had chickens, roosters and ducks out back. Jean, the city girl, had learned to cook from her mother. Whenever she went in the kitchen to cook, I tried to spend quality time watching her stir the pots. I was full of questions about everything going on in the world, the neighborhood and her family. Often she simply wanted to be alone. I am sure that being alone in the kitchen was one of the few ways my mother ever had any solitude, any mental rest. She could just be with her thoughts, away from her army of children.
Preparing the morning meal for a large family was hard work. In addition to knowing the right ingredients, my mother liked her kitchen warm. No matter what the temperature was outside, every morning Jean padded slowly from her bedroom in the front part of the house into the kitchen and turned on the gas stove to heat up the house. I often thought she kept the oven on to get her juices flowing for the day. After looking through the cabinets to find her old black cast-iron skillet, which she hid from us every night, Jean placed the pan in the warm oven to season it before cooking. While it was heating, Jean paced around the kitchen checking on her other pots and pans to see if anything was out of place. After lining up her cooking utensils on the counter, my mother would begin making up the breakfast menu in her head. A typical breakfast was scrambled eggs with onions and green peppers, toast, bacon or hot sausage, buttermilk biscuits and Tang, the popular powdered orange juice drink
of the sixties. Jean and Grandma, who was a great cook, kept the kitchen fires burning from morning to night. They were always stirring up something, frying something, smothering something, smoking up the kitchen. I know now that the secret ingredient Jean put in everything she cooked was love.
We were all about sharing. In a family as large as ours, we had to be. Jean drilled into us that we had to stick together -- unity. It was hard to argue with her.
Jean's family history had made family loyalty and family ties very important to her. In 1832, when her family was sold into slavery in Richmond, Virginia, her great-great-grandparents were split from their children. The four little children -- Pauline, Amelia, Benjamin and Julia -- were put on a boat and shipped to the port of New Orleans. Jean told us, later one morning her family was displayed on a block at the slave terminal located on Drive and Melphomene Streets. Colonel Charlie Welch, a wealthy plantation owner from West Feliciana Parish north of Baton Rouge, went out that day to purchase one "buck." But when he saw Benjamin, a tall, stocky Black man clinging to and holding on to his three little baby sisters, he decided to buy all four of them. The family worked on that plantation until slavery ended in 1863. Julia, one of the youngest girls, married William Brown, who also came down from Richmond and worked on the same plantation. Gradually, the family moved back down the river to New Orleans. And so, after such a start, the family story says we stick together.
Everywhere I went, I had to hold the hands of my younger brothers and sisters, since I was one of the oldest. If my older sister Cheryl was with us, she had to hold my hand. We'd walk along the train tracks heading to school, our hands locked together, in the Brazile family formation. As kids we thought the rule was stupid. But Jean had enrolled everybody in the neighborhood in enforcing the rule, and if anyone saw the Brazile kids walking without holding hands they reported us and Jean gave us hell.
Grandma, Frances Brazile, was born in Magnolia, Mississippi, in 1887. I was in awe of her. She walked with a cane with her head up all the time as if she were in control of the world. She stopped working early on to take care of her children. After giving birth to thirteen children, she retired to a small seamstress business that earned her enough to work from home. After my grandfather's death just months after my birth, Grandma lived off his pension from the Illinois Central Railroad, the IC, and a small allocation from Social Security. Grandpa Louis Brazile Sr. was born in 1882 in Tarboro, North Carolina. Grandma called him "Pappa" and had met him when she was getting off the train in Baton Rouge in the early 1900s. Grandpa was a fireman on a train that once carried federal troops from Illinois to the South during the Civil War. At the time, my grandpa was working for the IC with his good friend Austin White. One day while the train was held over in Baton Rouge, Austin set Grandpa up on a blind date with his girlfriend Mary Lou's sister Frances. Sparks must have flown, because my grandparents were married in less than six months. After the wedding, they made their way down to New Orleans.
My grandmother was really my best friend. I was her confidante. Thanks to her, I knew how to read before I started school. She'd use the daily newspaper, the New Orleans Times-Picayune, or the Louisiana Weekly to coach me. By six o'clock in the morning, Grandma and I would be lying across her bed reading the morning headlines. She'd make coffee -- the strong kind, with chicory, and put Pet evaporated milk in it. I started drinking coffee at age five, imitating Grandma. We would sit in her bed reading the newspaper, drinking coffee and eating buttermilk biscuits, and then we would cut out our coupons and she would tell me the stores where I could go to get savings for Jean. My grandma would tell me stories about everybody on the block, so thanks to her I knew everybody's business -- what Miss Olsie put in her hot tamales recipe and what was wrong with Miss Lucy's children. All the gossip was consumed with our breakfast.
I didn't know it then, but Grandma was my first mentor. I knew she loved me. She encouraged me to fly when others wanted to keep me grounded. She affirmed my big dreams and answered all the questions I asked and never told me they were crazy. She taught me how to manage money, listen to other people and to always respect my elders. Not until I was in my twenties did I grow to be as close to my mother as I was for most of my life to Grandma. Those mornings in bed with her were a kind of school for my spirit.
The only argument I ever remember my mother and grandmother having was over me. I was in the first grade. Thanks to Grandma, I was good with words and so I repeated every word I ever heard. One day I came home from school and asked my grandmother what is f-u-c-k. When Jean heard me say that she slapped me right across the room. Grandma picked me up, put her arms around me so my mother couldn't give me a second slap and told Jean, "You need to teach her these things. She can't figure these words out by herself. Jean, you know she likes to read and you've got to help her. You can't tell her that she can't say it. You've got to tell her why she can't say it."
Grandma was proud of me and loved me just as I was. When we'd all arrive at Jean's mama's house she would greet us outside and inspect us on the sidewalk for any change in size or color of our skin. Although we were all Negroes (being Black would come later in my childhood), Jean's mama lived in mortal fear that we would get darker than we already were, and that being so dark would make our lives even harder. My brother Teddy Man and I were the darkest of the kids, and we had a special bond. I think in part because of that Jean's mama would constantly lecture Teddy Man and me about staying in the shade or, even better, just staying in the house all day in the summer to avoid the sun. I hated it when she talked like that but didn't know what to say or do.
One Sunday during a July 4 outing at Uncle Johnny's house, Mama told Jean, "Donna and Teddy are getting too dark. Keep them inside or they're gonna have a whole lot of problems later on in life." I ran outside and told Sheila what Jean's mama said. Sheila told Cheryl and the whispering spread from child to child to adult. I was less than seven years old, and worried about how dark I was. I was a child, a Black child, and I didn't care about my appearance. I wondered even then how I would look with a wide nose, supernappy wirelike hair, and white skin. Jean's mama, for all her concern about color, loved us all deeply, and I know now that all her experiences as a Negro woman told her that her fear for Teddy Man and me was justified. But at seven I was hurt. I needed to cry. But I never did.
Later that night, back home in Kenner, I went to Grandma to tell her what Jean's mama had said. Grandma was dark, a deep bronze mahogany color, much darker than Jean's mama. I liked Grandma's skin color. It was my color. I didn't know how to begin the conversation, how to repeat what Jean's mama had said, so I asked Grandma, "What color should I be?" She laughed and told me that I was going to be a little darker than some of my brothers and sisters. She told me it was natural to be dark and reminded me that many of her thirteen children, including my father, were dark.
I chose to listen to Grandma instead of Jean's mama and played, jumped, climbed trees, ran on the train tracks, sat in the backyard and even tried to talk to the big bad sun. Nonetheless, until she died in 1994, Jean's mama constantly complained that I was getting "too Black." At some point I learned that she was referring to my attitudes, my politics, even more than the color of my skin. Being Black and accepting my darkness became a powerful and potent weapon for me in a city whose Negro elite prided itself on their straight hair, light skin and White features. By their definition and according to their beliefs and the beliefs of a lot of other Blacks, I had neither the right color tone nor hair texture to succeed in life. But what was a curse to some made me different, and I liked being different. In a strange way I even grew to feel superior to lighter-skinned Black kids because they had to work at staying light and I didn't. Grandma called my color a blessing from God. I believed her. Besides, I didn't like getting my hair straightened with a hot comb and warm grease oozing over my scalp so my coarse hair could be combed out and braided. The entire process unnerved me. In my diary, which I started writing around the age of five, I wrote, "God give me an Afro."
I learned as a child to respect my parents' rules and their "laws of behavior." I respected those rules but I didn't always follow them. In fact, I was the leader of dissent, often organizing my younger brothers, sisters, neighbors and little cousins into mischief to defy our parents and their rules. As a result, as early as I can remember, every inch of my body had scars from the leather belt or wounds from the wet switch, a slender branch picked by Jean or Grandma from the weeping willow tree in our backyard. I wore my scars boldly and my wounds in defiance of orders I thought were inconsistent with the lessons my parents were preaching. In my diary I would write, "They hurt me badly today."
But despite all the whippings I got, I continued to be disobedient and "too smart" for my age. I was always big, tall, lanky and older-looking than I actually was. Looking older helped me to act older, too. I challenged my parents at times and caught hell for it. But the messages I got from my family were contradictory.
Grandma kept telling me I had to succeed at everything I did. There was no room for failure, which upset me because it meant that I couldn't make mistakes. And she taught me to stand up, fight back. Grandma told me early on that I was the strong one, the child who could bear any weight, do anything. Everybody, including my uncle Sporty, aunt Pinkey, uncle Johnny and aunt Ethel, reinforced this view. No one gave me time to just be a child. I had to grow up to listen to them and respond to their needs. But I was full of contradictions, too, for as much as I loved being "in charge," a tomboy and running and playing outside, my favorite place was to be up with the grown-ups listening to them talking, laughing, lying, as they drank beer, listening to music and cooking up something to eat. I knew even as a kid that there was something mystical, magical, about what the grown-ups were saying, and I wanted to hear their secrets. I wanted to know everything they knew. They used to call me "tape recorder" or "Nosey Nancy" because I could repeat verbatim whatever they said. Jean would warn her friends, "Watch out, Donna is listening to every word and she'll repeat it." Indeed, I was working on this book even then.
There was an irresistible rhythm to my childhood and a lot of that rhythm came from speech, from language, from talking. It wasn't just the rhythm of the music Lionel played over and over on Friday and Saturday nights to get over the workweek and steel himself for the one about to begin. It wasn't just the sounds from Aunt Pinkey's house, where she lived the life of the party every day. I was deeply influenced by the sounds of hearing old people talk -- sounds of wisdom and joy. The old people were just plain ol' happy. Sure, they complained about their aches and pains. They talked up a headache or said they were getting tired, and the only way to stop the pain was to bring them an ice-cold Coca-Cola, a Goody's (powdered aspirin), some sweets like peppermints or a piece of pecan candy and sit down to listen to their stories. But they had such good stories to tell about growing up in Louisiana. Life was a daily adventure of running from snakes or looking for bait to go fishing. Everyone worked. No one sat home complaining. The old folks, like Ms. Dorothy down Filmore Street, drilled work ethics into me and the other children on the block.
Sitting on the porch in rocking chairs listening to wonderful little tales of their youth left us with the impression that our lives weren't so bad. After all, many of them knew the horrors of slavery or could tell you what it was like before people had electricity or running water. I thought the purpose of these stories was to remind us how lucky we were, because even though we didn't have much, we had more than they had had. The other stories always reflected their love of the Spirit and God. Yes, Jesus was famous in my neighborhood. We children heard all about God and the miracles and faith of the ancient people. In between stories, I recall them saying "Lord this and Lord that." So one day I worked up the courage to ask Grandma who the Lord was. "Grandma, you talk about the Lord all the time," I said. "What is he like?" She looked at me and said, "The Lord giveth and the Lord takes away. The Lord knows everything and everybody." So, Lord knows, I adopted the same language in my stories and speech. "Lord, look what I've done to my hair." "Lord, what about school?" "Lord, can you spare a dime and give us some money at home?" The Lord seemed to know everything on Filmore Street and my days were filled with the stories the old folks told of the families who lived on our street. But I was never to repeat or spread the stories. If I did tell anyone, the Lord would come after me and tell my secrets.
For all my bravado, I was a scared little girl who wanted to be accepted and to be told I was right. This was not the case in the Brazile household. The only time we children were given permission to talk was when an adult said we could. I wrote in my diary how unfair that was. I had a strong sense of justice early on. In my diary I wrote that children should be able to talk back to adults if they believed they were right. I wanted to talk. I had a big mouth and couldn't keep it shut. So my siblings and I developed a new rule: "no back talk." Simply, we were allowed to leave the room or the table without explaining our motives. It helped us to cope with our limited circumstances.
My first priority was school. I loved reading and I enjoyed going to school where I would just speak up every day. Grandma encouraged me to read everything I could. She gave me Bibles, novenas, and even her prescriptions to read. My other love was music. Jean's mama kept her kitchen radio on the gospel station WYLD-AM or WBOK-AM when we visited her. So I learned to enjoy music. I loved jazz, soul and gospel. My other major goal was to start working to make money to help out the family. I'd make a list of the things I loved. On another sheet of paper I would list the things I disliked about myself or that I knew I would have to change or overcome because they would stop me from reaching my goals. This was a very long and interesting list that included my hair texture, hair length, clothes, shoes, playing with baby dolls and games that made no sense.
I tried to encourage other kids to make lists of things they enjoyed doing. Teddy Man followed in my footsteps, but no one else cared. Teddy Man was my ace in the hole, a sister's brother. I included him in everything I did, including my adventures to the levee, my business to make money and my backup job of running errands for neighbors. As a boy he had tools -- like hammers and screwdrivers -- and toys I didn't have -- like red wagons. And I could play with them when my older sisters weren't looking. Cheryl and Sheila often got on my last nerves. They were perfect; I was not. So I turned to sports while they spent their time being pretty little girls with long straight hair and colorful ribbons to match their clothes. The only way I could compete with them was to beat them at board games. Jean bought us games that involved multiple players, like bingo, checkers and Monopoly. I learned to play these games, often as the banker, and when I played I played to win.
Like most kids, during summer vacations my brothers and sisters stayed in bed too long. Not me, I got up early, picked up the newspaper, watered the plants outside, drank coffee with Grandma and began my day earning a living. Yes, I was an old spirit. After reading the news and clipping my store coupons, I was ready for a good day's work. The summer between my sixth and seventh birthday I wanted to make some additional money. After talking with Mr. Joe, who owned the corner store, I decided to recycle soft drink bottles and sell them back to him and Mr. Willie at the Kenner grocery store. In order for me to really succeed at this enterprise, however, I needed help. So after talking it over with Jean and Grandma, I hired my two brothers Teddy Man and Chet, my cousin Cedric Henderson, and my neighbors Marc Johnson from across the street and Jeffrey Conrad, who lived near the train tracks. They were younger but they had wagons, big wheels and more strength to lift the carton of empty bottles. Little girls weren't supposed to hang out every day looking in gutters for old bottles or in trash bins. So I hired them as my subcontractors and gave them a cut from the proceeds. Besides, I needed their wheels to carry the bottles home that we found so I could clean them up before returning them to the store for five cents a bottle. This business brought in an additional three to four dollars a week, enough to pay my helpers fifty cents apiece (big money back then) and give Jean her cut -- one dollar. Everybody got a cut from me. I used my extra savings to buy candy for the little kids (key to winning support) and save for my Converse high-tops. I hated sandals -- all types of sandals, especially the open-toe variety. One of my other businesses was a bait and tackle shop, digging earthworms from the ground and selling them for a dollar a bucket. This was slimy business, but my crew and I found fishermen and -women all over Kenner who needed our service. By the time I turned seven, I was putting aside about five dollars a week and paying the boys a dollar each, and I upgraded my mother's pay to two dollars. Still, I wanted more money to help out the family and buy my reading materials that now included Ebony and Jet magazines and the Louisiana Weekly. Those were magazines that I had Jean's permission to read. There were certain others that were off-limits and I would later learn a painful lesson about the cost of reading them.
At night, after reading children's books and the Bible to my little sisters and brothers, I pulled out some of the books about "the revolution" or pamphlets disseminated by the Black Muslims. One night, Jean caught me reading Muhammad Speaks, the newspaper of the Black Muslims and the Nation of Islam. The paper cost twenty-five cents and was cheaper than Ebony magazine. Like Ebony, the Muslim paper had great stories about Black people all over the country. That night I caught a serious ass whipping as Jean tried to beat the hell out of me for reading what she referred to as "hateful trash." I also got whipped for talking back to her, trying to defend and explain why I was reading the newspaper.
I will never forget that night. For the first time, as she raised her hand to hit me, Jean told me what I had long suspected, that she wanted me to act more like my sisters. "Shut up. Stay inside. Stop trying to run things. Behave!" The wounds did not heal quickly this time. I decided to leave the bodily marks as symbols of my courage and as evidence that I had dared to read about the problems of Black people, problems my mother didn't want me to know about. I was now eight years old, but I already had my feelings and opinions.
Yet the punishment only made me more determined to know the truth about what was happening to Black people everywhere -- not only in New Orleans but around the country. I found adults and old people in the neighborhood who were willing to talk to me about the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement. Winkie, my friend Harlean's brother and the nephew of Lois Jean, who was Jean's best friend, arrived back from the war. He sat on the porch every day, staring into space and not talking to anyone about his experiences. Every day I walked out to the front yard and waved. "Hey, Winkie, you doing all right?" Winkie never struck up a conversation. He waved back and promised that after the revolution he'd discuss the war. I waited, but Winkie never stirred. In the newspapers and magazines and even some of the books I read, Black people, outside of Kenner anyway, were fighting back.
There were many who, like Jean, were afraid to discuss civil rights and Black Power. So I began to turn to God for answers. I wrote in my diary that all the adults were "too scared" to make a move or strike back. I wasn't scared, but I was unsure what I could do to help out. I was familiar with the words civil rights, justice, freedom and equality. But no one had a clue in Kenner. If they did, they didn't dare utter the words because I would have tape-recorded the conversation. God, I thought, was not afraid to listen. I did not know what to expect from my prayers, but I wrote constantly, based on everything I heard about God, that I would find the answers. The lesson I took from the beatings and the whippings was how to pray. It was a lesson that stayed with me throughout my childhood and adult life. That was a lesson my parents instructed us to follow and it was one of the few that I obeyed.
God, as Lionel constantly reminded us, was always with us. I liked that idea. I knew God and enjoyed praying all the time, as early as I can remember. Like most poor Black folks, we talked about God all the time. Lionel and Grandma taught us about angels and saints. We had statues and symbols of saints, angels and crucifixes all around the house, especially in my parents' bedroom where Lionel kept another altar. The family's Bible had colored pictures that we were told never to touch. Lionel's drawings of angels, like St. Michael and St. Anthony, and bottles of holy water filled each and every room of the house on Filmore Street. My first known prayer usually went something like this: "God, I know you made everything in creation -- the birds, trees, flowers and everything underneath the stars. Yet my mother, who you created by creating her mother, is a little short on patience today. Please work with Jean and tell her to be gentle to her children, especially me, because I am trying so hard to please her." As always, I made a promise to God to give up something in exchange for my prayers being answered. Often the only thing I could bargain with was food. In exchange for one of my prayers being answered, I ate only one peanut butter sandwich. As I began to earn some money, I put more pennies each week in the "poor box" at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church, located right near the train tracks.
We talked about God, but mine was not a household that talked a lot about love. My grandmothers affirmed me in so many ways, but the lessons were not personal; they were mostly about what we owed to others. In our home you were congratulated for getting the clothes off the line before it rained or for going outside to pick peppers or okra. When you "did good" God was happy. Lionel, Jean, and Grandma were happy. And because God was always watching, God was happy since he was always part of the conversation. Jean's Baptist upbringing and strong beliefs, which held sway over her although she didn't attend church regularly, and Lionel's Catholicism combined to create a heady Baptist/Catholic orthodoxy that scared us kids into obedience and faith. But because we were drilled with the notion that we had to be good to others and were taught to give back and sacrifice for our family, this shaped our character and, although Jean didn't know it, formed the basis for my sense of politics and social justice. They wouldn't have said it like that. Jean was afraid I'd be disappointed and hurt if I knew too much about what was happening beyond our little community.
She knew about the horrible slaying of young Emmett Till; about the civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner, who were brutally killed in Mississippi; and that hundreds of children, some not much older than me, had been arrested in places like Birmingham, Alabama. She wanted to protect me from that fate. When she punished me she wanted to take the rebelliousness, the curiosity from my spirit -- traits that could easily get a Black person in the South killed whether they were in the movement or not. But that didn't mean she didn't want me to care about people in need. She was simply sheltering me in the only way she knew how.
I prayed, I wrote and I read. And once I learned to read and understand what was happening around me, I wanted to participate in the struggle. I had fantasies of leaving Kenner, Filmore Street and "making something of myself." All so Grandma, Jean and Jean's mama could be proud. Living so close to the river, I thought the best way to leave home was to cruise down the Mississippi until we reached the clean, warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. From the Gulf, I could explore the new world and see the Caribbean or go to Africa. I imagined the Mississippi River was actually the Nile, and from atop the levee, built to protect the city from flooding, I could see the giant Egyptian pyramids and talk to the pharaohs and the living gods of ancient Africans that I had read about. I enjoyed sitting on the levee. It was my mountaintop.
Other times I imagined leaving Kenner on one of the trains my grandpa and uncle Sporty worked on. The daily noise and movement of trains coming and going past our house sparked this fantasy. I'd leave home and go to some faraway city in old Europe. Sitting on the front porch we often watched Uncle Sporty, a porter on Amtrak, wave to us as the train pulled out of Kenner, bound for New York or Illinois. While the old folks talked, I would drift away and see myself in Vienna, Austria, boarding the Orient Express to Venice, a far more romantic trip than those Uncle Sporty made. I read about those cities in magazines. I wanted to leave Kenner and go to Europe. Perhaps the best way to leave, I thought, was just to catch a plane right down Airline Highway at the New Orleans International Airport. Years later, when I did leave Kenner, I sent Jean postcards from all over America, Africa, the Soviet Union and Europe. My imagination as a child helped to spark my interest in traveling and meeting people from all over the world. First, though, I had to finish my education. I wanted to learn everything about the world around me.
I spent my first few years at Ralph J. Bunche Elementary School, where a new Head Start program to teach poor kids was introduced. My mother signed up her three little girls to be part of the program and dropped us off, said hello to her old friends and caught the bus to Mrs. Hilbert's downtown. School was fun, but I soon learned it was for kids, not for someone like me. I wanted to grow up quickly and volunteer in the civil rights movement. By the time I turned eight, America was already changing. In 1964 the Civil Rights Act was passed by Congress, outlawing discrimination in public facilities. In 1965 the Voting Rights Act was passed, and in 1966, Lyndon Johnson launched the Great Society and the War on Poverty. These were the historical touchstones of my childhood and they created a charged, hopeful atmosphere in the neighborhood that encouraged my curiosity and inspired me. The leadership in the civil rights movement in my neighborhood came from the Clay and Burton families. One day word spread around town that Reverend Arthur Paul Clay, pastor of Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church on Clay Street, would host Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Clay, a member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, was a prominent preacher in Kenner and a giant political figure. I hung out with Byron, one of his young sons. Byron taught me how to distribute leaflets about Dr. King's appearance. Naturally I wanted to get paid for it. Nevertheless, I got more than money by learning about the movement. Something was going on around me and everyone was talking about Dr. King.
A week later we got our chance to hear Dr. King on the radio, but my parents forbade us from working in any way with people involved in the movement. Of course, I didn't exactly follow Jean's orders on this one. At school my friends with parents active in the movement would bring me materials to read at night. I felt proud to know people who worked with Dr. King and it led me to ask the old people for stories they had heard or read about him. And so the day Martin Luther King was shot in Memphis, Tennessee, changed my life forever. I made the decision to go to Taylor Street, the next block over, to officially join the movement and work with Mrs. Rosemary Minor and Mrs. Felice McMiller, who had become active in both politics and the movement. I was only eight years old, but I wanted to get involved. I got tired of waiting to grow up. I joined the movement on Thursday, April 4, 1968.
Copyright © 2004 by Donna L. Brazile