POETRY OPEN 2021
by Ana Wooldridge
Swiftly, the beautiful, young lady walks down the street clutching her waist in pain. Her white skin is flushed from her brisk walk. Her auburn-colored hair flows beneath her wide- brimmed straw hat. She is dressed well, wearing a burgundy dress with a white lace collar, and a pair of buttoned-up heeled shoes. As she walks, she recognizes no one, and no one recognizes her. Still, subconsciously she feels these strangers are wondering why she is freely walking on this side of town.
As they greet her with smiles of familiarity, she nervously returns the gestures, thinking to herself: If they only knew. If they only knew the truth. If they knew who my mother was, they wouldn’t greet me but rather look at me with the lowest disdain. They would make me walk on dirt, on top of horse manure. They wouldn’t care, not in the least. And why should I care? I hate them for their privilege. I hate them when they greet me as if I was one of them, as if I belonged on these wooden planks instead of on the horse- manured streets.
She begins to reflect, and as she does, her confidence grows and her pain lessens. She smiles, thinking of how she fooled strangers before. I fooled them in Patesville. I fooled them in Knoxville. She thinks of the banker’s son who loved her in Lynchville. She thinks of how ignorant he was. I will fool them again!
She notices an old lady approaching with her old, negro, male servant and says to herself with an air of surety: I will fool this bent-over, old spinster. With innermost contempt, she continues: I will simply nod my head, and do my best imitation of all the pretty girls, who wear the pretty dresses, who live in the big, pretty white houses. Yes, I will smile the widest smile ever or maybe, just maybe, I will curtsy! Yes! I will even curtsy for this old spinster. That will truly convince her and others as to my so-called proper upbringing.
As they get closer to each other, she prepares for the performance of her lifetime. Suddenly, the old woman stops a few feet in front of her, points her walking cane at her and says sternly, ”Why are you here?!” The young lady, taken aback, is silent. The spinster repeats herself: “Why are you here?!”
The young lady nervously replies, “I’m passing through. I’m new in town. I was told the doctor was just up the street.”
The old woman looks deeply into the eyes of the younger woman and softly whispers, “You’re a nigger, a nigger.”
The young lady, in shock, stares at the spinster in disbelief, but with a sudden, striking change of attitude, the old woman points her cane down the road and says politely, “You’re right, my child. Just a few more doors down. Tell Doc Mortimer that Miss Steel says hello, and you have a good day.”
The servant quickly apologizes to the young lady. “Am so sorry, ma’am. Miss Steel gits dis way nah and den. She jus’ plum loses hah mind at times. Must be duh heat.”
Dumbfounded, the young lady simply stares at him as he speaks. She watches as he takes the woman by the arm. He continues to apologize as they gingerly walk on.
The young lady, in fear, shock, and feeling exposed, wonders: How did she know? How did the old spinster know?
Nearby waits a carriage for hire. With heightened apprehension, she approaches the driver and says sullenly, “Can you take me to Clarksville?”
“Yes, ma’am, I can . . . but you know that’s nigger town.”
Peola, clutching her waist in pain says, “I know, I know.”
Harper Darnell grew up in Detroit and now resides in Dearborn Heights, Michigan. He began writing street life poetry in the 1980s under the name “Down By Law” after his life was almost taken. He was first published in a magazine named City Arts Quarterly by poet and author John Sinclair. Darnell is currently finishing a book of short stories which includes “In Passing: A Carriage to Clarksville.”
“The inspiration for this story is the novel The House Behind the Cedars by Charles W. Chesnutt, which follows the lives of African-Americans ‘passing’ for white after the Civil War. Another influence is the movie Imitation of Life starring the black actress Fredi Washington. Peola is named after her character.”