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Authors: Gil Scott-Heron

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BOOK: The Last Holiday
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I’m going to have to ask you to accept some information on faith, the way I did. For instance, that on the morning of April 1, 1949, at Provident Hospital in Chicago,
Illinois, a very pretty young Black woman named Bobbie Scott completed a roundtrip to and from the hospital delivery room. According to the information on the birth record, she gave birth to a
child that was a legitimate-black-male, the tic-tac-toe of birth certificates in that day and age.

A lot of people’s positions in life changed that day. Birth always directly affects far more people than is readily apparent. Everyone related to either parent gets an additional name to
be called. My mother’s mother became a grandmother, my late grandfather’s sister became a great aunt, my grandmother’s brothers became great uncles, their children became cousins
again, and my mother’s brother and sisters became an uncle and two aunts.

My father’s family was affected the same way: his mother and father became grandparents, his seven brothers became uncles, and their children became cousins. My father, who was originally
from Jamaica, and all seven of his brothers had the middle name “Saint Elmo.” I’m not sure how many of his brothers named their children Saint Elmo, but my father decided he
wanted to name his son after himself, name for name: Gilbert Saint Elmo Heron. This was cool with my mother up to a point. Using the same first name was cool. The use of the same last name was not
only cool, but also fit with the legitimate-black-male of the birth certificate. But using Saint Elmo would have brought the known number of men on the planet with that middle name to nine, which
was one too many as far as my mother was concerned. Not cool.

According to my mother, she had absolutely nothing against Saint Elmo or the fire that may or may not have been his responsibility. She did not question the veracity or the sobriety of the many
seamen who had reported seeing this flaming phenomenon along the masts of ships at sea. She simply didn’t like the name Saint Elmo, and she convinced my father that unless the saint came
marching in, there would be no “Mo.”

My mother suggested finding another name that started with “S” so the initials of father and son would remain the same. My father’s problem was that he didn’t know any
other middle name that might go with his last name—all of the Heron men he knew had Saint Elmo as a middle name. Then my mother suggested “Scott,” her maiden name. My father
didn’t think much of Scott—all the Scotts he knew had it as a last name—but he reluctantly agreed.

My mother had been named after my grandfather, Bob Scott. Everyone called her Bobbie, but her full name was Robert Jameson Scott. Her parents, Bob and Lily, obviously didn’t care much
about convention when it came to the names of their children. They gave them the names they wanted them to have. Bob Scott had died in 1948, after going blind ten years before. My grandfather had
been an insurance man before and through the worst of the Depression and then began to break down. First, constricted veins blocked circulation in his legs. Then he went blind. He began to lose his
grip, slipped, lost his mind, and later became violent and had to be committed to the hospital for the criminally insane at Bolivar, Tennessee.

Still, it was probably my father as a Caribbean version of Bob that made him attractive to my mother. Gil, my father, was tall, handsome, well-dressed, and well-mannered. So had been Bob Scott,
who always wore a suit for business, with a white shirt and a tie, his hat cleaned and his shoes shined. (Later in life, I remember members of my father’s old soccer teams telling me about
the zoot suits and wide, striped ties Gil would be wearing when he arrived in the locker room.) When my mother talked about her youth in Jackson, Tennessee, and going places with Bob Scott, you
could hear the pride in her voice and see her eyes shine. The strength of their relationship was obvious.

My grandfather had been “Steel Arm Bob,” a pitcher who bested Satchel Paige’s barnstorming team 1–0 when they came through Jackson. Reading the sports pages to him was
how my mother got to know so much about sports and batting averages—the knowledge and real understanding of the details. My father liked that.

Gil Heron was young, exotic, and worldly, a veteran of the Canadian Air Force. He was also physical and athletic, and went all out when he competed. The Aries fire lit up his face and made it
glow. The joy of winning brought a smile that made you feel like you were standing in a bright, warm sun. Sometimes he was romantic and sometimes thoughtful, brooding over the quality of his
competition and teammates who couldn’t get the ball to him when they were pressed. He loved to talk about soccer, past games, teammates, opponents ridiculed as their pointless, desperate
pursuit of him always ended the same way:

Her honesty and curiosity, not naïveté, attracted Gil to my mother, Bobbie. My mother was the second of four Scott children, a scholar who graduated from Lane College, the Black
university in Jackson, with an incredible 3.96 grade point average, and then moved north to Chicago. She was obviously a pretty and vivacious young lady, a college graduate with a soft drawl, and
not a bad bowler. They had met at the bowling alley next to the Western Electric plant where they both worked in Chicago. She was slim but he could see the shapely legs, the firm hips, and the
guileless smile. He’d known women who pretended to be sports fans, saying, “I’d love to come to a game and see you kick a home run.” Not her. Not Miss Bobbie Scott from
somewhere in Tennessee. She knew sports. She even knew about his “football.” Soccer.

Gil would come home after soccer games and rub his legs down with alcohol. Only then would the cuts and scratches and bruises receive the notice they deserved. During games he was oblivious to
discomfort; my mother would be appalled by his injuries. Opponents tried to deliberately injure him, with high tackles and tackles when he didn’t even have the ball. It was inevitable when
his team played groups from the surrounding areas. His skills would offend the opposition, often leaving them feeling foolish and flailing, victims of Gil’s fancy footwork. There were
scoundrels in places like Skokie, a suburb of Chicago then inhabited primarily by Europeans, who treated soccer like an ethnic heirloom. My mother talked about incidents when opposing players had
felt forced to foul, going for his legs instead of the ball, not trying to tackle him but to injure; these were red flags to his temper. Bad move. Gil would grab them and either overpower them with
the strength that could be generated by his powerful legs, or while grappling face-to-face he would suddenly jerk his opponent toward him, forcing their face into his forehead. Once he had been so
upset with the blind-eye officials who ignored intentional attempts to injure him that he suddenly turned on the ball and kicked it over a wire fence into Lake Michigan, ending the game.

Bobbie was as worried about fights as she was worried about him getting hurt in games. And those were not related to the same set of circumstances. His reputation, or so the legend goes, was
that he handled both of those very separate skills with equal dexterity and with equal enthusiasm. So she would go see him play, hoping that would be all.

My mother told me there was a certain grace and ferocity whether he was kicking goals or kicking ass. She didn’t come up with that opinion just because she was married to him. Though she
might have been biased, her belief in his talent was confirmed when the Scottish national team visited Chicago for a “friendly” match, an exhibition game, and were impressed. In fact,
after the game members of the coaching staff spoke to him and made an informal offer for him to come to Scotland to play. He was, after all, already a citizen of the commonwealth.

My mother and father separated when I was one and a half years old, when Celtic, in Glasgow, Scotland, offered him a formal contract. My father decided to take an opportunity to do what he
always wanted to do: play football fulltime, at the highest level, against the best players. It was, for him, the chance of a lifetime, the chance to play for one of the most famous teams in the
British Isles. It was an opportunity to see who he was and what he was, to avoid sliding through fits of old age and animosity and spasms of “I coulda been a contender” that no one
believed. That sort of thing can even make you doubt yourself, doubt what you know, doubt what you would have sworn if anyone was willing to listen. To play with Celtic was also a Jackie
Robinson–like invitation for him. It was something that had been beyond the reach and outside the dreams of Blacks.


According to my grandmother, Lily Scott, I arrived at the house on South Cumberland Street in Jackson, Tennessee, in December of 1950, after taking the train south with her. My
grandmother had come to Chicago to collect me from my mother after they agreed I would be better off in Tennessee while everything in my mother’s life was restructured. Like where she lived,
how she lived, and, to be blunt, who she didn’t live with. She and my father had agreed to disagree and were to make this difference of opinion as official as their previous agreement. I was
not needed as either a referee or witness to this action, and was sent on the Seminole with my mother’s mother. According to the plan, I would be with her for six months. I was not

My stay stretched beyond those six months that had been planned, and eventually beyond six years, which landed me in the same school my mother had attended, St. Joseph’s. The period from a
skinny, chocolate, preschool-aged mischief maker to my short-pants uniform at Catholic school seems hardly a blink in retrospect. As I grew up I was blessed with the run of an aging neighborhood in
the southern section of town where I was always near a “cousin” or someone who recognized me as a descendent of a family that was near legend in South Jackson. I was an heir of Bob and
Lily Scott. My every appearance was a reminder of some hazy happening from the halcyon days before Cumberland Street was even paved, and before Jackson was large enough to show up on state

All the Black folks lived in South Jackson. A substantial percentage of the community members were from my grandparents’ generation. It seemed that the numbers were split between folks who
were easing toward senior citizenry and those of school age. The hole was in the middle—people my mother’s age. Those were the folks who had left Jackson and Tennessee for factory work
and urban life in the north or farther west: St. Louis, Memphis, and Chicago. Somehow their children, like me, all ended up in Jackson with their grandparents, aunts, and uncles.

The most popular sport in the south was baseball, and the stands for the little league games were always fairly crowded with mature community experts. My game was somewhere between mediocre and
all right, but my pitching reminded them of “Steel Arm Bob Scott,” my grandfather, who once pitched for the local team. My ripping and running in general through the dusty streets
brought back stories of the four Scott children who had run and ripped twenty years before I arrived. Everyone remembered them, so Jackson felt like a town full of parents and grandparents. I was
welcomed everywhere. I was identified and respected in Jackson as a Scott: “Bob Scott’s boy.” I was identified as though the Herons did not exist.

I didn’t mind being connected to Bob Scott. I just didn’t know him because he’d died the year before I was born. Under consideration, I decided that most things that were
important had happened just before I was born: my grandfather, the Second World War, Jackie Robinson, the things that were important to people in church or on the front porch at night. They had
gotten all their living done, and their accomplishments were strung out behind them like pearls on a leash. Lazy evening conversations would allow us all to take figurative walks through the
gardens where those highlights of their lives had been planted.

My grandmother had been born Lily Hamilton, in Russellville, Alabama. It was an appropriate name for a delicate, fair-skinned woman with raven-black hair that nearly reached the floor when she
let it down to brush it. She was scarcely more than five feet two inches, and never more than a hundred and ten pounds. She was a laundress. Her first job had been for the railroad, cleaning and
preparing the tablecloths and place settings for the club car diners and the uniforms for the porters and conductors who worked on the rail on the two passenger trains that shuttled between Miami
and Chicago. To facilitate that job she had moved to Jackson, Tennessee, roughly halfway between those two points. Once I landed in Jackson, every summer I rode on either the Seminole or the City
of Miami, back and forth to Chicago to see my mother.

By the time I came to live with Lily in 1950, she was “taking in” laundry for a living. She did her job at the house on Cumberland Street for individual, private customers who
brought their clothes to the house and picked them up a few days later. I don’t know how she started doing that job or how she got her customers, but among the people she provided this
service for was the mayor (though he had started bringing his clothes before he was mayor), the chief of police (though his wife and son came more often than he himself did), and the owner of a
large downtown department store.

I found out how she felt about quite a few things from listening to what she said to them, and about how much respect they had for her by the way they listened. I heard her address the chief
about “the problem,” what wasn’t right, what was bothering folks, what needed to be done. He would nod his big bald head and in his half-growl he would drawl, “Aw, Lily, you
know them kinda things take a while.”

She would always speak her mind, and it took just the right amount of time for her to finish her points and to gather their shirts and other property. But she spoke her mind wherever she was.
Like her evaluation of the waiting area reserved for Blacks in Corinth, Mississippi, a filthy, cave-dark backroom where we had to wait to change buses when we visited family back in Russellville,
Alabama. She would be sure the white ticket seller heard her let loose a list of complaints. She seemed to make the other Black folks in there nervous. And I got the impression that she
didn’t care. There were no good racists and no places where you would prefer to be discriminated against. There was no best racist state; but there may have been a worst racist
state—from my brief experiences, that dishonor would have to go to Mississippi. For whatever reason, I felt bad in Mississippi. I felt Black and mistreated. Maybe it was because of the things
I heard about Mississippi, about the murders there, about Mack Parker and Emmett Till and Medgar Evers, who were all murdered in Mississippi while I lived in Jackson. Maybe it was the size of the
signs that said
at the bus station in Corinth. Maybe it was the absolute stink in the bathroom of that bus station, which was unmatched in my experiences before or

BOOK: The Last Holiday
13.81Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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