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Authors: Eleanora E. Tate

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BOOK: Celeste's Harlem Renaissance
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“She’s a Garvey-ite, a follower of the Honorable Marcus Garvey,” Aunti told me. “A famous man,” she added when my face remained blank. Before I had a chance to ask what Marcus Garvey had done to become famous, a handsome man in a ritzy blue serge suit stopped by our table. “Celeste, this is Mr. James Weldon Johnson, a famous writer.” She beamed. “James, my niece, Celeste Lassiter Massey, from North Carolina.”

“I’ve heard of you,” I gasped. “You wrote ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing.’ We read your poem at school and sing it in church.”

“He’s also the head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. That’s the group that publishes the
Brownies’ Book
magazine, you know,” Aunti continued, showing her beautiful white teeth at him.

Speak up, Celeste, speak up!
“Mr. Johnson, sir, I love to read your magazine. We sent in our poems for the student writing contest, but I don’t know how we did.” My heart beat so fast I could hear it thump through my words. “I brought one of your magazines with me so —” I stopped. My precious magazine was gone forever. “But I lost it,” I finished.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Mr. Johnson said. “Come by our office and pick up any copies you want. Dr. W.E.B. DuBois actually founded the magazine, and Miss Jessie Fausett’s the editor. I’ll pass on your remarks. They’ll be pleased. Valentina, I just wanted to tell you that I met with the city’s employment commissioner the other day. I put in a good word for you.”

“Thank you, James. You know how much I appreciate everything you do.”

After he left, I softly clapped my hands. “Oh goody, I can get more magazines!” I exclaimed. “Aunti, you know everybody. But James Weldon Johnson!”

“His group tries to help us Colored, and tries to stop lynchings and such. The famous Booker T. Washington ate here a few times before he died,” Aunt Valentina said. “I saw him myself. And a singer and actor named Bert Williams has dropped in. Roy Lee’s been around a long time. He’s much older than he looks. It’s certainly a place where good folks can meet. I just wish more people who hire would come, too.”

I ate, and looked at and listened to the snatches of conversation around me until I couldn’t hold any more of anything. After the afternoon darkened into evening, we walked back home with our arms full of food. My brain buzzed with having met and heard about so many famous people. I couldn’t wait to write to Angel Mae, Swan, and Evalina. Why, my letter could end up being ten pages long! Aunti’s explanation about how she got kicked to the curb helped a lot. I still didn’t care for so much hard work, but I couldn’t tell my friends about that.

We stopped in front of a brick building on One Hundred Thirty-sixth Street. The sign read
MADAM C. J. WALKER COLLEGE OF HAIR CULTURE.
Her salon was in there, too. “Her daughter A’Lelia and her people are in charge now. A’Lelia’s townhouse is right there.” She pointed to an upper-story window. “It’s fabulous inside. Kings, queens, and princes from all over the world fight to be invited to her dinner parties. She has a mansion in another part of New York that’s the size of the North Carolina capitol building.”

“Have you ever been to her parties?” I wondered if her castle had a rotunda, too.

Aunti resumed walking. “When I was still with Madame Mercifal, I got invited many times, and of course I went. When I lost favor with Mercifal, I lost favor with a lot of people, including A’Lelia. We still speak, but I haven’t stopped by lately. When my money gets better, I’ll take you in for a treatment.”

A thousand questions jumped into my head about Madam Walker, her daughter, and those parties, but suddenly Aunti seemed sad again. I guess she was thinking about her old life when she was eating high off that hog. I thought fast to say something positive. “When you do get another job, you don’t have to use your real name, do you? So Mercifal won’t know it’s you?”

Aunti snapped her fingers. “You’re absolutely right. I’ll just give the boss another name and later tell the truth. What a blessing in disguise you are, Celeste. Why didn’t I think of that?” My face burned at her compliment. If I’d been light-skinned, my cheeks would have turned red.

We’d have skipped like we did when she visited in Raleigh, too, if we hadn’t been carrying Monsieur’s food. I reckoned Aunti would have skipped because she had finally told me the truth. I would have skipped because if she got a good job and saved her money, we both could go back home. But maybe it was good that we didn’t skip. We still had to go to work that night, and we needed to save our strength.

Chapter
Eight

I
awoke to Aunt Valentina washing clothes at the sink and singing. I hadn’t heard her do that since I’d come to New York. “No wonder Madame was so jealous,” I said, yawning. “You could sing a newspaper advertisement and make it sound pretty. What is it?”

“Aren’t you sweet? It’s the title song from
Aunt Susie Honeysuckle.
Say, I haven’t heard you play your little violin since you been here. Why don’t you try with me?” She shook out a wet waist and hung it on a hanger to drip above the sink. “I mean, if you feel up to it.”

“Be ready in a second!” I hurried out into the chilly hallway to the lavatory and back, then reached for Dede. “But first Miss Pinetar must dance while you sing.” She hadn’t seen my puppet, either. I explained where I got her from and she said the doll was cute. Miss Pinetar jumped and clacked her little wooden feet on the paddle to Aunt Valentina’s singing, and I hummed, familiarizing myself with the catchy song. “Aunt Susie Honeysuckle” was a complicated tune, but by using the doll I was able to pick up the rhythm. Then I set her down, tucked Dede under my chin, tuned it quickly, and off we went! Then Aunti took me into fairly simple songs: “Balm in Gilead,” “Camptown Races,” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” Suddenly she twirled about, and with a wink returned to singing “Aunt Susie.” I was ready. When she stopped, I kicked into that sassy ragtime piece “Maple Leaf Rag.”

“Oh, my, I’m impressed!” she said, raising her eyebrows. “You’ve really progressed.”

Miss D stood in our open doorway, clapping. “I declare, this child’s got talent. Do ‘Swing Low’ for me.”

When I lit into a fast “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” Miss D’s alto joined Aunti’s soprano. We paraded around the room, singing, playing, humming, and clapping. I added some riffs I had learned from listening to the new blues music at Café Noir Le Grande. Blues on a violin! I must have overdone it because Aunti held up both hands. “That’s enough. I got to get back to my washing.”

“Celeste sure ain’t whispery when it comes to that fiddle.” Miss D smiled wide at me. “Playing and humming at the same time. Now that’s unusual. Do you know ‘Jook Joint Jump’?”

“No, she doesn’t.” Aunt Valentina slipped her arm around my shoulders, and at the same time gently nudged the violin from under my chin. She cleared her throat. “She’s a marvel, isn’t she?”

“Well, I was on my way to work anyway,” said Miss D. “We’ll have to do this again. Cece, you keep playing like that and you’ll be onstage with your aunt, won’t she, Val?”

Aunti didn’t say anything but went back to washing. I sat down with Dede in my lap. “Thank you, Aunti, for sharing your music with me. Playing really sparks my spirits.”

“Mine too. You know, you talk like a little ole woman sometimes, instead of a thirteen-year-old. I guess that comes from being around Society so long.”

“Oh, she says I talk sassy and that I’m impudent.” I blew out my breath. “And not good for anything but digging dirt out of corners and scrubbing floors.” I stopped. That’s what I’d been doing with Aunti Val.

“Society has a lot of nerve. She and Taylor, their two brothers, and their parents, God rest their souls, were some very poor people for a very long time. I bet she didn’t tell you that.” I shook my head, surprised again. “Fishermen don’t make much money if they’ve not got their own boat. Of course you knew Society set fire to their house when they were kids, didn’t you, because of her awful cooking? And that their parents died in that fire?” I knew about that. My folks had told me, though Aunt Society never brought it up. “Well, I bet you didn’t know that afterward Society and her brothers lived for years in a tiny lean-to they built, until they managed to buy a little pitiful boat and do their fishing. Did you know that your father met your mother while traveling back and forth from Morehead to Raleigh, selling fish?”

“Momma told me they first met at the Stackhouse,” I said, trying not to frown. Aunti Val was wrong about that. “Poppa always talked about how much he loved living in Morehead City, and telling fishing stories, and stuff. He never talked about him being poor. Momma always said I shouldn’t look down on poor people, anyway — poorer than us, I mean.”

Aunti Val grunted but let that go. “Well, grown folks don’t tell children everything, you know, especially if it involves sin or tragedy. Plus, it just ain’t your business. But I’ll tell it, as long as it’s not about me.” She grinned. “Anyway, your folks got married and Taylor moved to Raleigh, but he’d still go back and forth. He smelled like fish all the time! But a few years later his brothers drowned when their boat capsized. That ended the business. Society stayed down there by herself, up to her elbows in fish guts and blood every day and half the night for other fishermen. I’d rather scrub floors any day.” She snapped her camisole so hard it popped twice. “Though not like this, of course.”

“Me too.” I’d never cleaned fish, but I’d killed and gutted a chicken and hated that worse than anything. “I thought Aunt Society lived in Raleigh for years and years,” I said, “and was a seamstress.”

“Not until your mother took sick after Emmanuel was born. Taylor asked her to move to Raleigh to help. She sold her Morehead City property and bought that house in Raleigh that’s around the corner from you-all. Your Grammaw Lassiter taught her how to sew. You knew that Grampa Lassiter worked for the governor, landscaping. Anyway, we were all glad when Society took to sewing. Your momma couldn’t let Society come visiting up in
her
house smelling like croaker and spot.”

When I giggled, Aunti said she went with Momma and Poppa to Morehead once when they still had the fish business, when my uncles and Aunt Society lived in that place near Calico Creek. “Funky, stale, fried hogfish stink stuck in every inch of that house so bad I had to go outside. I liked standing in the backyard looking at the creek, but the yard crawled with so many flies and maggots from where she cleaned fish that I nearly passed out.”

I shivered and squeezed my eyes shut. “I used to like to eat fish, but I don’t know now.”

She laughed. “Anyway, your momma and I scrubbed many a floor to help when we were young, and we were proud of it.”

“You and Momma?”

“Sure did. Plus, we gave recitals at St. Paul AME, in school, all over Raleigh. I sang and she played piano. We even performed at the Negro State Fair.”

“Think of that! Momma never said a word about all this. How old were you?”

“Oh, from around four and six years old until when we got grown. Until I moved to New York. I’m sure she told you and you forgot. Kids do forget things, you know.”

“And now you and I are doing the same things, scrubbing, singing, playing. Maybe we can be a team, like Miss D said.”

“Well, we’re scrubbing floors.”

“But maybe one of these days we’ll be on the stage of the Abyssinian, performing, not scrubbing, huh?”

“You’d be too shy for that.” She scrubbed hard on her red nightgown. “I’ll be ready for you to start washing your things in a few minutes.”

“I’ve been meaning to ask you who those people are in that picture.” I pointed to the one of the man, two women, and baby.

“Oh, that one.” Smiling, sighing, and frowning at the same time, Aunti lifted the photograph from the wall and brought it to me. She tapped the glass over the woman standing. “Your mother,” she said.

“Momma looks so young.” I ran my fingers over the glass. “And so pretty.”

“I’m in the chair holding you. You were six months old.”

I clapped my hand to my mouth. “Bald-headed and fat, with chipmunk cheeks and chunky arms.”

“You were a quiet baby, like you are now,” she said softly, and smiled. “You had the sweetest little grin, and you knocked us out with your big hazel eyes.”

“And is this Poppa?”

“No, that . . . that was a friend, a kind and dear friend. You . . . would have loved him. He’s gone now.” She turned away so I couldn’t see her face.

“You mean he moved?”

“No, I mean he’s — he’s deceased. He passed right after that picture was taken.”

“What was his name?”

“Chavis,” she said softly. “Nathaniel Chavis. Now no more questions.”

“Sorry. Didn’t mean to pry.” Maybe he was an old flame. I returned the picture to the wall, but I kept glancing back. No wonder I had been drawn to it. I was looking at myself. “You know, I miss Momma and Poppa so, and now I don’t even have our family picture anymore, because of that thief stealing it,” I told Aunti. I scrubbed on my slip. “But I can look at this one here. So when one door closes, another one opens, doesn’t it?”

Aunti spun around and stared at me, then her lip curled down. She flopped onto the bed, covered her face with her hands, and burst into tears. Seeing her cry for the first time ever, and missing my folks and my home, I sat down beside her and cried, too, rubbing my eyes with my soapy hands. Just as quickly, Aunti clapped her hands like she was slapping off dust and stood back up. “Enough blubbering. Now let’s get back to work.”

I nodded and wiped my face with my skirt. I decided not to mention the picture to her again, not if she was going to break down like that. And I was glad she had told me so much good juicy gossip about Aunt Society.

After we finished our clothes, I wrote a short, polite letter to Aunt Society at her Raleigh address — which I’d never done before, I realized with a start — requesting some more clothes. I also inquired about her health, how she liked living in her old home round the corner from us again, and said that I missed her, which was true. I didn’t ask if she missed cleaning fish, though. Finally I wrote a group letter to Swan, Angel Mae, and Evalina. I’d planned to sooner than this. Seemed like I really hadn’t felt like it, though. I gave them highlights of the train ride; meeting folks like Big Willie and Mr. James Weldon Johnson; eating at Café Noir Le Grande; and getting Miss Pinetar. I didn’t mention scrubbing floors or living in that tiny room, though.

BOOK: Celeste's Harlem Renaissance
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