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Authors: Gil Scott-Heron

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BOOK: The Last Holiday
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I can see other disconnected pieces of my childhood life in Jackson. I remember Harry Caray announcing the St. Louis Cardinals games from all the neighborhood radios. I remember going to Sunday
services at church as regularly as a deacon. First flashes of what I thought was love, sensations close to shock each time I saw the prettiest girl I had ever seen. The memory frozen like an ice
sculpture as I stood with barely a heartbeat; a “don’t let her know” grin shattering like a windshield all the “be cool” I was reaching for. Stacks of these images sit
neglected in the barrel—fascinating, nearly faded slices of my life.

There were things growing everywhere, and a lot of talk about what folks were planting and how various crops were doing. That part of the country is known for its black, fertile soil that was
“good to grow,” and people did some growing. Outside of town there was cotton by the bale, tobacco by the pound, and strawberries by the quart box, plucked from the bushes that grew
shin high. But the farmers out in the “country,” which is what we called everywhere outside of town, weren’t the only ones growing. In the front and backyards of the houses in
town were displays of the yesterdays, displays that showed these townsfolk’s roots were not too solidly city; that only their houses were planted in town while something within them drove
them out to dig and hoe and rake and dirty their hands in the dying sunlight, to plant if only a single row of vegetable memories, to turn full spades of the thick black soil over and slice it with
their shovel tips to a depth of eight inches. Then they could reach into the pockets of their gardening aprons for seeds to sprinkle among the decapitated worms.

In the backyard on South Cumberland Street, my grandmother and I were an unlikely farming duo. There was an annual yield from a peach tree, and a grape vine weaving its way along the south
fence. Half the backyard space was cleared one fall and flattened near where a basketball backboard was erected with a netless orange rim, but otherwise there was a row of tomatoes, a couple rows
of thin spring onions, and an attempt at cabbages one year. In the front yard there were roses and snowball bushes and the prize of the yard, a pomegranate bush that grew in season with its
branches loaded down by the pale red apple-looking fruit bursting with tiny, juicy buds.

It was in the backyard that I first encountered and defeated a snake, hoeing an arm’s-length nonpoisonous chicken snake to mince, slashing at the earth with such unaccustomed energy that
my grandmother came to take a look.

“I knew you were doing more than weeds,” she said, trying to assess the danger and confirming that there was none.

“Aw, boy,” she chided, “this was harmless.”

“It is now,” I told her, trying to catch my breath.

Just knowing that there were several species of poisonous snakes in Tennessee, most notably water moccasins and cottonmouths, put me in no mood to check on pedigree before deciding that the
state could do with one fewer.

I had a black cat with a small patch of white at its throat. I didn’t like most animals. I didn’t like dogs, showing their attention with wet tongues and cold noses. I did not like
fish or birds because there was nothing to pet. I loved cats and still do. But somebody poisoned my cat, and my grandmother didn’t want me to see the cat dying under the back porch.

That’s how I became acquainted with cruelty—and with the fact that death doesn’t always just happen, it can be caused. The memory is of me sitting and crying on the back porch
with my grandmother holding me by my shoulders both to comfort me and to keep me from looking beneath the porch where my cat had crawled away to die.

I had felt somehow like the prince of the neighborhood, who knew everyone and was cared for by all. But evidently not, because I had to be shielded and warned away: someone had poisoned my cat.
Someone killed Snowball.

Other images of death follow on from that: Mr. Spann’s funeral, when they should have kept the casket closed after he lost control of his car and burned up inside it. The services for a
little girl of seven I knew who had a heart attack and died. I hadn’t known that death took people that you knew and children so young. And once I knew that, I knew what it meant when I saw
an ambulance in front of Aunt Sissy’s house, which I could see from the window of my school. She was brought out on a stretcher and I knew she wouldn’t be back.

The images—of relatives, good friends, and the neighbors who were close enough to be called cousins and uncles and aunts even though they weren’t kin—are clear. Some of them
are animated, moving through the parts of their lives where I saw them most often. Some of the ladies are dressed up and clean like Sunday mornings; the men are covered with the dust and grime of a
day’s work like a second skin. Most are smiling, enjoying something, but others are bent to nearly broken in half, crying in front of my grandmother, who is lying in a coffin surrounded by
flowers.

I found Lily one sorry Monday morning in November, during seventh grade, cold to my touch. I’d gotten up to make her breakfast, and I knew it was strange that she wasn’t stirring. I
slipped quietly down the back hall to the kitchen to get the food going and saw her laying there, her profile clear in bed in the shadows of her darkened bedroom. When I dropped a pan, I took
another furtive glance but she still hadn’t moved. I went on frying strips of crackling bacon and eggs in the skillet, and as they were sizzling I took a wash pan of heated water and a
washcloth to her room and placed them on the nightstand. I called her name softly and touched her wrist to wake her. She was as cold as ice and so stiff with rigor mortis that I could barely lift
her arm.

I called next door, and the kid picked up the phone; I was so wild, he dropped it. I went outside and saw the woman from the house going to work, and she came and took over.

At the funeral, Uncle Buddy sat at the end of the pew crying, tears seeping from under his glasses and staining his shirt like sweat. I can feel myself almost falling into this image, beaten up
again and nearly blown over, stunned and stomped on, pushing against a gale force wind to close a door I never meant to open. But I remember as I turn away from the images and the barrel that I did
not cry. Not that day.

I had run out of tears.

 
8

Up to that day in November 1960, my mother had seemed more like an aunt, just like her sisters, like Sammy was a tomboy aunt and Gloria was a bookworm aunt. But on that dingy
gray morning my mother and I had been brought together like cymbals in some ill-coordinated band’s clanging climax. It wasn’t only that we were unprepared to be put together then, it
was that we had both just lost our mother.

Immediately after my grandmother’s funeral, I spent six weeks in New York with Aunt Sammy and my Uncle William. New York City was as cold as a whore’s heart that December. Every
fucking day. I couldn’t ever remember a day in Tennessee as cold as an average day in New York. And there was snow up to your ass, or at least well over the rubber overshoes I wore. At the
school I attended for a few weeks, the teachers talked funny and I hardly knew what was going on because I came in on the offbeat. Since I knew I was going to be leaving again soon, there was no
incentive to listen up and catch up.

Aunt Sammy, born Sam Ella Scott, had been a hell-raiser as a child, and was the biggest sports fan in the family. And no wonder, since she had played basketball through high school and college,
and worked as a physical education teacher. On previous visits to New York, Sammy had taken me to my first live baseball games, to see the Dodgers play at Ebbets Field and to Yankee Stadium for a
game against the Indians. She had taken me out on her motor scooter, not just around her neighborhood on 225th and White Plains Road in the Bronx, but out to Coney Island and to Yonkers Raceway.
Sammy loved to gamble, and when she wasn’t on the rail watching trotters, she hosted all-night “rent party” poker games.

William was no shrinking violet either, though he was an obvious intellect. He had majored in math and graduated early from Lane College. Like his sisters, he had been anxious to leave the rural
reality of Jackson behind. Unlike the three ladies, who headed first for Chicago and its booming postwar economy, William signed an agreement with the U.S. Air Force and was stationed in Wiesbaden,
Germany, before settling in New York City and taking an upper-level position with the Social Security Administration. I’m not sure where the name William came from, but it didn’t matter
because everybody called him “Baby Brother,” which got shortened to B.B. or just B.

I enjoyed hanging around with Sammy. The best thing about being with Aunt Sammy was that she liked to go places that I enjoyed. It was not like spending time with someone who would rather have
been anywhere else. And when she talked to me, she looked directly at me, not faking interest. She talked to me as though I had a brain and could understand English. It was refreshing. Often she
had to preface whatever we were doing with a conspiratorial, “Don’t tell yo’ mama where we went!” And I didn’t.

Back in Jackson, my mother, who moved back from Chicago, and I spent the next year on South Cumberland Street together like the first two people at the rail watching the life boats lowered as
our lives took on water. Even if my mother cared to live in Jackson, where the roots of everything Scott were planted in the yard, and secure her teaching position at Lane College, notices were
being served throughout that section of South Jackson: there was a four-lane highway coming through from the south that would connect to Interstate 70, and it would reach us by the end of 1962.
Everybody had to go somewhere.

My mother and I stayed put and picked up our mail there, but my mother was already firming up plans, in touch with her brother, Uncle B., in New York. She and I lived together and I started
eighth grade back at South Jackson primary school. But something else was happening, too. My mother, far more perceptive and far more committed to me than the other way around, was obviously making
up her mind about her son. She knew she loved me because mothers do, but she had to decide whether she liked me. I think she decided we could be friends as long as I was honest. The best way to do
that, she decided, was to let me see that she was honest. No hype and no hurry. What she showed me as time passed was that her faith was unshakable and her love unconditional.

There was a brand new junior high in town, an all-white public school called Tigrett, for students from the seventh to ninth grades. There was also a lot of talk about desegregation, as Brown v.
Board of Education crept across the south and school boards started to understand the ramifications of what Brother Thurgood Marshall taught the Supreme Court. In November 1961, a petition
circulated through South Jackson primary school, a list of “who’s willing to go to a white school?” or “who wants to go to a white school?” I signed up; so did a lot
of other people. But the crackers down there still felt a certain obligation to the Confederacy, an inherited allegiance to the memory of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis—even though all
they had to relate to were the names of highways and the battlefields that had been turned into tourist traps. I knew the list was just something that had to be done according to the law, to
demonstrate a need for transfers to be approved. It’s possible that some folks only signed up because they thought the NAACP lawyer who was preparing a court case to challenge the segregated
school system needed to demonstrate substantial numbers. I don’t think anyone thought it would happen anytime soon.

One night just after New Year’s Day 1962, when the second half of the school year was just starting, my mother came into my room. When something was serious, my mother would take a pen and
twist it through a curl in her hair while her voice got deep and she said things very clearly. Loud enough to be heard, but soft enough that you had to listen. A tone of anti-panic, like she could
be heard actively being calm. A kind of calmness that made the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. It used to really get on my nerves when I heard that tone of voice. But I was also still
getting to know my mother—it had been only a year since my grandmother died—and I didn’t know how to interpret her tone of voice and how serious it was.

That’s how she sounded that night. And it sounded serious. It sounded like I was in trouble. Or somebody was. I waited for her to get to the point as she started to explain that the
negotiations between the NAACP lawyer and the Jackson City Council had been settled. That is, settled in favor of the NAACP. Then my mother asked whether I still wanted to go to a white school. She
never said I
was
going. She just asked whether I wanted to go. And if I wanted to, I had to start
the next day
.

She said forty students had signed the petition when it first went around in November, but now that they were ready to integrate the junior high school, there were just three making the switch.
And that was if I decided to go.

I asked her who was going.

She said Madeline Walker, who I’d gone to St. Joseph’s with, and Glover, who was my man, were the other two students.

I think part of why her jaw was so tight that night was because she was upset that so many of the other kids had backed out. But she didn’t say anything more except that I should think
about it, that nobody would look down on me for not going, that in fact no one would even know anything in particular. All they had ever announced publically was that there had been forty
names.

Did she want me to go? I thought she did, but she also wanted to be fair. She knew when I signed up there had been a long line in front and behind me, a lot of people. I figured the city council
was calling our bluff: “Okay, y’all coloreds, let’s see how many of these signatures are just autographs.”

I decided to go to Tigrett, and started the next day.

I didn’t know what to expect. All the books were the same, and the syllabus was the same, too. We were in approximately the same place in the syllabus as we’d been at South Jackson.
They always said the schools were separate but equal, and the books weren’t the difference. The school was very different physically. Tigrett was departmental, and we went from classroom to
classroom and had different classes with different people. That was new to me. At South Jackson we stayed in the same class with the same folks all day long.

BOOK: The Last Holiday
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ads

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