I was born in West Texas.
Paducah, Texas, to be specific.
Big sky, red dirt country and so stark and beautiful it hurts to look at it. Mesas, sprawling, slow rivers, small copses of trees dotting the landscape between rolling, ancient hillocks and stark ravines.
That red dirt stays in you.
You can feel yourself breathing it out years later and oceans away. Your skin retains a reddish tint, your body burnished by sun and light sand, wind and the whistling loneliness of endless prairies and tumbleweeds ambling by, their destination, eternity.
I didn’t grow up there, being a military brat traveling the world, but between each duty station we’d return for a spell. My first two years of life, parts of third and fifth grades and many summers and holidays were spent there with my grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins.
As a result, I claim and wear cowboy boots and hats with absolutely no shame or pretension. Texas born, fifth generation.
Paducah was still a bustling, west Texas town in the late 60s and early 70s. With the mechanization of the cotton fields back then, the population and opportunities have dwindled dramatically in the present day.
There was a television station and a drug store down on the square, feed stores and department stores. A movie theater with a peanut gallery. Parades featuring ranchers on horses. Gas stations, motels and restaurants.
Black folks lived on one side of the railroad tracks and white folks lived on the other. That’s just the way it was. In the summers, when we went to the pool there were no white kids swimming with us and the water was as milky as the clouds above, the chlorine stinging eyes and turning all of us into red-eyed, white skinned ghouls when we dried.
All that is gone now. The businesses on the square are empty. Broken windows mark the desolation, old, worn and nigh unreadable signs are all that is left of the dreams of those who left for larger cities with more opportunities and, for black folks, less – or less obvious, at least – racism.
My Big Daddy worked for the white people across the tracks. Came from Greenville, Texas, with his wife when they were young and made a good life. Was successful and sent all of his kids to college. Over the years, all of their children and grandchildren would come back for holidays and the house would be filled with laughter and the smell of traditional soul food. People slept in and on the many beds and couches. The kids made parcels on the floor, giggling and laughing ourselves to sleep to wake to the smell of coffee and food cooking, mamas and aunts in the kitchen with Big Mama, Big Daddy coming in from the garden and sitting at the table, talking to his sons.
My father’s mother, Grandma Dorothy, lived a couple houses down and her sisters, my Aunt Ruby and Aunt Francis, were another block down and across a couple streets. Same story there; aunts, uncles, cousins, family sharing the most precious moments of life. We’d split our time between their houses, packs of cousins running the dirt roads and up and down “The Hill”, where the Juke Joints and Cafes were and we weren’t allowed to go until we were much older. After dark but before bed we’d play around our parents and uncles and aunts and the older cousins as they sat outside on porches and in yards talking and gossiping, quietly, because children were seen and not heard in those days.
The Hill was a sprawling black community, with small houses dotting its flanks; two roads – one leading out of town and the other back into town – ran up each side of the hill, containing its growth with a small gully, that turned into a torrent when it rained, at its base. There were two churches there; one Baptist, where the women worshipped, the other Church of Christ, where the men worshipped. I don’t know why.
The Hill community was a remnant of the cotton-picking days, when many itinerant black folks migrated from East Texas to work the fields during the growing season. Both sides of my family arrived in Paducah in the early 1900s and made a life there. It was a hard life for many, but a good life at times that made strong, tenacious people who dreamed of better lives for their children.
My father, Thomas Charles, joined the Air Force and married his high school sweetheart, Hazel Lee. They were married for 48 years and traveled the world with their children before mama passed to complications of breast cancer the day before her birthday, September 23, 2015. A good number of those aunts and uncles and cousins and all of my grandparents have also passed into the Beyond.
It doesn’t seem so bad, death.
Those who I love and who love me too are there, waiting for me. For us. Strong, stubborn and proud, proud folk. Family. Who knew this land. Blood. Who worked this land and believed in the promise of this nation. Who lived and died working toward the fulfillment of that promise.
Who bequeathed unto their progeny a similarly strong desire to fulfill that promise. Children who grew up steeped in the Civil Rights struggle of the 1960s. Who took advantage of educational opportunities to better their lives and those of their children. Who know this land as well, its complete history which includes their stories. Our stories.
Who stand proud in that history and present. Who know that this struggle is for the soul of this land and its people. Who will give all they have to it. For it. As our Ancestors have before us. For us.
And for you too. For all of our children.
Five generations of Texans on both sides, till me and my sisters Maya, born on Keesler AFB in Wichita Falls, Texas and Meredith, who was actually born in Germany but who – due to arcane military installation designations – is also born Texan. Five generations of toiling, dreaming, striving and living the truths of their lives. Truths of all life, everywhere, for everyone, to some degree or another.
Truths that shall, some day, set us all free.