Featured image: school bus Feature image attributed to ThoseGuys119 under a Creative Commons license; image transformation by Emerald staff.

POETRY: Fat Plaits and Ashy Knees

by Kathya Alexander

My Mama say when she a girl and she go to school, 
way back when, sometime back in a whole ‘nother century, 
that only the white children get to ride on the bus.  
Colored children have to walk.  And the white kids pass by and chunk mud rocks at them.  
She say the school that she go to is bout 10 miles each way.  
But every time she tell the story, the school get further and further.  
I done heard this story for so much of my life, 
I could tell it by heart.  I am dusting the floorboards 
in the living room.  And oiling our beautiful old wooden upright piano.  
These the two things that I have to do every Saturday  
along with wringing the clothes from out our new wringer washer 
and hanging them out on the clothesline in the backyard.  
Mama sitting on the couch sewing my new dress for school.  
The television is on filled with black and white images 
of little colored children trying to desegregate schools.

Mama say, “We traipsed down long roads where dust rose when we walked.  
Or they was muddy in the springtime because of the rain. 
In the winter, them roads would be hard as a rock.  
And we walked ‘em barefoot for most of the year.  
In the wintertime we would cut out some cardboard foot shapes, 
and put them down in the bottom of our shoes to make soles.  
It didn’t do much for warmth, but I woulda did anything.  
Walked that much and further just to go to school.

“Chi’ren today is ungrateful.  That’s just what y’all is.”  
Somehow every story she tell seem to be about this.  
“You got buses that take you to yo’ very own schools,  
but you rather go to school with chi’ren who don’t even want you near them.”
We watching pictures on the television of colored children on a bus.  
And all these white women trying to turn it over 
and they screaming and fussing.  
I ain’t never seen white women look so mad and so mean.  
These is white mamas whose children I coulda played with
when my mama took me with her to they house to clean.

All them children want to do is go to school like my Mama.  
Why white people hate us so much?  That’s what I want to know.  
My mama say this gone happen.  But I didn’t believe it.  
So I filled out the form and decided to go 
to the white school in Jacksonville.  But my Mama don’t know it.  
She think I’m staying at the colored school where I done always went.  
But after seeing all these children getting turned over on buses, 
I’m starting to have second thoughts.  I don’t know what to think.

All summer long my head done been hurting.  
Cause when Mama find out she gone give me a whipping.  
Cause when they give us them Freedom of Choice cards to sign, 
I write her name where it say parents.  If my Daddy was alive, 
I know he woulda gave me permission to go.  
Cause my daddy for integration.  But my mama say no.  

But now President Johnson done got the Civil Rights bill sign.  
That mean now I can go to school wherever I decide.  
So me and Jewel decide we gone do something new.  
So when the cards come in the mail, me and Jewel decide to  
sign our mamas names on them Freedom of Choice cards  
that say now we going to school in Jacksonville, Arkansas.  
That’s the nearest white school to where I live out in the County.  
And all a Negro child need now is permission from they parents.

Mama say she ain’t never heard of nothing so stupid.  
And what I’m seeing on television is starting to make me wonder.  
Seeing this happen it change me.  Now I know just like Mama always say 
that I’m somebody who can be kill.  A little colored girl.  Me.   
With my fat plaits and my ashy knees.  I’m gone have to tell Mama soon what I did.

Mama call my name and I come back with a jerk.  
She tell me to come over where she at so I can try on the skirt 
that she sewing for me.  I walk slow cross the floor 
with tears shining in my eyes.  “What is you crying for?” 
my Mama ask me.  But I can’t say a word.  
She say, “You see now what I tell you?”  I see little kids in the dirt 
with they new dresses messed up from the mud on the ground.
So I know I got to tell her.  But I can’t tell her now.  
I’m gone have to wait till all these images is gone.  
When she ain’t looking so sad.  I feel a headache coming on.

“You like your new dress, Mandy?”  Mama look at me and say.
“Yes, Mama,” I say, to the throb of my headache. 
Mama take the pins out the dress and one of them stick my skin  
and I burst into tears.  But I still can’t tell my Mama ‘bout the trouble I’m in.  
Mama hold me in her arms and she just let me cry.  
And that make me know everything gone be all right.

Kathya Alexander is a writer, actor, storyteller, and teaching artist. Her writing has appeared in various publications like ColorsNW Magazine and Arkana Magazine. She has won multiple awards including the Jack Straw Artist Support Program Award. Her collection of short stories, Angel In The Outhouse, is available on Amazon.

📸 Featured image is attributed to ThoseGuys119 under a Creative Commons 2.0 license (CC BY 2.0); image edits by Emerald staff.

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