2009 Storylines Award Winners. Selected by Silas House.
My family was sharecroppers in Stanton, Mississippi, near Natchez on the Louisiana border. We grew cotton, soybeans, corn, black-eyed peas, sugarcane, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, peanuts, all kinds of greens (mustard greens, collard greens), cabbage, cucumbers, carrots, onions, okra, and June peas. We raised chickens, geese, ducks, guinea hens, and cows. We ate whatever we grew. My mother liked to bake pumpkin and sweet potato pies in the fall and chocolate and jelly cakes any time. Everyone in the family worked on that farm, and it was hard work. There were no tractors, only horses and mules to help out.
My mother was a good person, a strong black woman. She was good to people she met and she liked to talk. She was five foot two and 120 pounds, but she worked like a big person. No job was too hard for her. She wore long dresses to her ankles and had long brown hair in two long braids. She had a beautiful smile showing her white teeth and one gold tooth. Her skin was like the color of a pecan, and she had dark brown, loving eyes. She went to church every Sunday and loved children and giving back to the community. It was hard times in Mississippi, back in the 1950s. People were frightened of how things were. My mother would tell us not to be scared, that things would be all right.
One day in late August, 1955, my mother was working in the field with my father, my brothers, and me. A man named Ed Pree came by on horseback to tell my parents about something that had happened. In those days, news traveled to black people by word of mouth, from farm to farm. We had a radio at home, but no T.V. and no telephone.
Mr. Pree was like the telephone man. Sometimes he’d come by just to visit. But that day he stayed on his horse so I knew he was carrying important news. There was no time for supper or gossip. He needed to go on to the next farm to tell them, too.
I was four rows over in the cotton so I couldn’t hear what Mr. Pree was saying. But I could see that he looked disgusted. He sat with his hands crossed on the front of the saddle, on that little place that rose up, what my family always called “the pump.” He sat and talked and my parents listened. Then he turned his horse and rode away towards the next farm.
After Mr. Pree left, we all walked through the cotton back to the house. I remember that some of us had on big straw hats and some of us didn’t. My mother called us around. She and Dad were sitting on the edge of the porch. That’s when she told us about Emmett Till. What had happened to him. Ed said that Emmett had whistled at a white woman. And then they beat him and drug him behind a car for a long time. And then he died.
Emmett Till was fourteen years old. He was from Chicago but he was down in Mississippi visiting his grandparents for the summer. Things were different in Chicago. Emmett didn’t understand how white peoples were in Mississippi at that time.
All he had done was whistle at a white woman. And he had been murdered for it. What happened to Emmett was the worst thing I’d ever heard of. What brought it even closer for me was that we were both black and we were both fourteen years old. I knew that what happened to Emmett could have happened to any of one of us. My mother was very frightened for my brothers. She told them to be very careful how they acted around white women and girls. She told me to be careful around white men, that they would try to molest me. At that time, we were scared to talk to white people because we didn’t know what their reaction was going to be. After Emmett Till, we felt like anything could happen.
My mother told us that things would change. She used to say that one day we’d have a black president. She said her children and grandchildren would see it but she wouldn’t. At the time, I didn’t believe her. But she was right. She foretold the future.
My mother has been dead twenty years now. I miss her. I think about her every day and I wish she was here so I could talk to her about things. I miss her strength and the way she loved me. She was a hopeful person. Regardless of what people said or did, she believed in God. If she was here right now, she’d tell me to trust in God. She’d say no matter happens He will bring you through.
In 1964, I moved to New York City. My mother didn’t want me to go but she wanted me to improve myself and to get a better job. Now it’s 2009. Sometimes 2009 reminds me of the past —all the poverty, especially for blacks. People are losing their housing, there’s no food on the table, and children are starving. In a lot of ways, things have changed, but in a lot of ways they’ve haven’t.
I think about Emmett Till a lot these days. I think about how frightened we all were, and I think about my mother, how she taught us to be strong and hopeful even when bad things happened. It was an important lesson and when I remember it, I feel close to my mother and her goodness and grace. I miss her every day, but I still have her words, her example, and so many memories to turn to when I need them.
I was a driver when I lived in Sierra Leone. I began the job in 1966 when I was only 13 years old. I got my license to drive two years later when I was 15 years old. I was only a young teenager and this was already my second job. My first job was farming. We would take plants that were grown in the forests and box them up to be stored in trucks. After the plants were boxed up, I would drive the crop to a local harbor owned by a company owned by my people called Soulonko. The company was very large, employing over 4,000 people who worked different jobs. Once I reached the harbor, it was my job to load ships that would bring the boxes to Germany.
That was my first job and I only worked there a little while because the company closed. When I came home, I decided to buy a pick up truck so I could work as a driver. I ended up working as a driver taking monkeys from my country to Liberia. This job did not last long because Liberian rebels took my car and all my possessions. I was left with nothing. I was lucky enough to get another driving job with the government of Sierra Leone after being out of work for almost two years. I drove for the government party of Sierra Leone. I drove workers, sometimes supervisors and other important people, from office to office and sometimes to the country for three days to a week. This was the last job I worked because I came to America.
I came to the U.S. in 1999 because it was too dangerous living and working in Sierra Leone. I was in a medical clinic for 3 months after Liberian rebels cut off my hands in an attack on the city I was working in. Many other people, almost 70 people, had their hands cut off. I’m happy that I found a life in America. I am very happy to be living away from the trouble in my country. I do miss my family who still lives there but I’m glad to live here and have a nice life with my wife Theresa.
I remember my childhood as a gift of life. Until I was 7 years old I lived with my parents and two brothers in a little house that my dad and uncle built.
The walls were tree trunks that they cut from the forest. They tied the trunks together and covered them with clay that they took from the river and mixed with straw. The roof was made with palms called “moriche”. They’re like a coconut palm.
There were two houses close to us. One was for my grand-mom and the other for an uncle with his family. We couldn’t see any other house around, only trees, leaves and the palms from the river.
My family and people worked very hard. Each family had their own land where they planted vegetables and fruits— a part was to sell and a part to eat. Some meat came from hunting and fishing and some came from chickens, pigs, and cows that that we raised on our land. Milk and cheese came from the cows that we had. I remember my grandmother feeding the chickens. They were always around the house. She called them by making noise with a pan full of corn. There were many chickens but my grandmother always knew when one was missing!
We had no electricity, so there was no TV!
It was always exciting to see the full moon appear every month with incredible colors— red, orange, and yellow. The rest of the month when we didn’t have the moon we could see the stars.
It was always great when my mom, brothers, aunt, and cousin were together on the river. We had so much fun!
I live in New York City now. A big city gives you many things, but also limits what you can see of the beauty of nature.
As a child I lived in the middle of nowhere, but at the same time in the middle of everything, because I never felt that I missed anything.
“A Phenomenal Woman” by Fatou Saidy
In my country, we often name a child after a family member, and often that family member will raise that child. That is what happened to me. When I was 1 ½ years old, I was given to my aunt Fatou. She took me from Senegal to Gambia where I grew up. She inspired me because she was a tough woman. She knew a lot about life. She taught me everything. She taught me how to cook, clean and how to be responsible. She taught me how to have manners. Even though she was uneducated, she showed me how to become independent and to learn skills. She taught me how tough life can be. She told me, “Don’t let anyone or anything stop you from being who you are and doing what you want to do with your life.”
“A Spectacular Morning” by Annie Chan
This morning I was at home in my dining room reading a newspaper. Suddenly I smelled something fresh and sweet from the window. It smelled like a rose, so I looked over. I had planted a jasmine on the fire escape about two years ago but the flowers had never bloomed. Now, at the end of August, the weather is still warm. I stood in the window and watched the flowers open. In just a few minutes I saw five flowers bloom. Each one opened slowly, slowly and finally popped open. I was so happy. When I bought the jasmine it was just a baby. Now it was a grownup. It was the first flower I ever planted and it had flowers. The flower’s color is white and very beautiful. Then I looked across the way. Another apartment, like me, had also planted a few pots of flowers on the fire escape.
“Ayo, My Hero” by Marwlee Dennis
One Saturday evening last summer, my older sister Ayo and I went to a baby shower in Manhattan. When we went there, we met a whole lot of people. The place was furnished nicely. There was enough food at the shower like stew with rice, green salad and chicken soup. There were a lot of people talking and gospel music was playing on the CD player.
My sister Ayo was happy. She was wearing an orange tube dress with a short black jacket and her hair was fixed up with an African hair tie. We were sitting on the chair playing a shoe game. While we were playing the game, a guy came and took a picture of me. He showed it to Ayo, and she said “She is my pretty queen”.
Everyone laughed. It made me feel so good, and I knew she loved me. She has always taken care of me. My father wasn’t with us any more so she was very important to me in my life. Ayo sent me to school in Ivory Coast. She paid for it even though she was here in the United States. She wanted me to be important in my life and told me, that without education, I could not be successful.
I am Ayo’s pretty queen, but she is my hero!
“Born On Staten Island” by Robert Doss
I grew up on Staten Island in the 1950s. At that time, it was a safe place to live. Staten Island was like the country. It was like a farm land where farmers would sell all kinds of fruit. There was one main road like a dirt road and there weren’t many street signs. Back then the roads were safe to walk along; houses were far away from each other so we did a lot of walking.
In the morning at 7:00am, we had breakfast and then walked to school. It was a 20 block walk just to wait for the school bus. A mini-bus picked us up and dropped us off at school. When I got home from school, I did my playing in the backyard at home with the kids in my family. Ladies would walk a couple of houses away to visit, but they knew when their husbands would be home. Then, they would go home and cook the family a meal and had it waiting for them. My mother didn’t work because she took care of all five kids in my family. It was fun being on Staten Island because you could trust the neighborhood. People helped each other.
I saw many changes on Staten Island in the 1950s and 1960s, and when the Verrazano Bridge was built. Buildings were just being built. A big change was that there were no more stores where you could get a bag of groceries for 25 cents. Many farmers sold their farms and supermarkets started coming to Staten Island. The streets changed from dirt roads and there were more buses. The buses were hot in the summer and cold in the winter. Back then, the winters were colder and we had more snow. It was snow on top of snow.
Today, I still enjoy living on Staten Island. The library has classes and computers to use. I like this because it helps me to learn. The bus service is much better and I’m not disappointed that there aren’t many dirt roads anymore. There are parks to walk around in, but it’s not as safe to walk around the park at night. I also like that there are more stores; we have more choices now. I will always live on Staten Island because it is my home and I love it.
“The Biggest Scare of My Life” by Breaint Lawrence
At this moment, everything was so scary because no one knew what it was or what was happening. Everyone just thought it was a bomb. People were running and screaming, men were taking off their ties, and woman were taking off there shoes, I was so afraid for my life. I could not believe this was happening. I thought it was another terrorist attack, so many things were going through my head at the moment, my car covered in smoke and my wife was somewhere in a crowd of people, and my brothers friend. I felt a bit of relief a while later the police were telling me it was only a steam pipe explosions not a bomb like everyone was thinking.At this time I said I have to get back to my wife, I need to find her, I think at this point maybe like about an hour had gone by, and I could not find my wife, and I couldn’t get her on the cell phone either because everyone was trying to use their cell phones and the lines were busy. It had been a long while that I had been walking through the crowds of people and I finally found my wife. She was so happy to see me she was crying, she thought I was not coming back. I also felt such relief when I had finally found her. But at this time I still needed to find my brother’s friend. I knew he had to be somewhere in the crowd. I needed to find him because he is not too familiar with the downtown area. And the last time I saw him was when we had all jumped out of the car and I ran with my wife and he ran up an opposite street.
So this had been a really, really long while. So me and my wife held hands really tight and went through the crowds of people looking for him and we finally found him standing on the sidewalk in front of a pizzeria. He had dust all over his hair but he was fine, Thank God. I know that for a very long time I will be said about this day because my car was totally destroyed, and the guy that was in the red truck was seriously injured. But thank God that me, my wife and my brother’s friend are alive and well and are able to tell family that we love them so much. That day on July 18th, 2007 will be a day I will never forget.
“Memories of My Mother” by Luis Marin
When I was a child my mother called me with her serious voice, very loudly yelling my name, “Luis! Luis!” I heard her, but I didn’t answer until I heard, “If you don’t come right now I am going to beat you.” My mother was strict. She did what she said she was going to do. But my mother was a very friendly woman. The whole neighborhood knew her, maybe because when somebody needed her help with cooking she helped them. My mother was the best cook in her neighborhood. She worked in restaurants cooking any kind of food people can eat: paella, chicken without bone, seafood and pabellon criollo, a Venezuelan specialty. My mother worked at night, every night. I don’t remember her having a day off.
My mother was a very good-looking woman. When I walked with her men always called out to her. I got angry but there was nothing I could do. She has very long shiny black hair and she is a bit tall. She was beautiful.
When she walked home with her coworkers they took branches of pretty flowers and roses that grew through the fences of other people’s front yards. With those branches my mother made a beautiful garden. When she needed flowers she took her own, she didn’t buy. Her garden had all kinds of roses and all kinds of flowers. When somebody asked her what the name of this rose or that flower was, she always answered with the correct name. Sometimes her friends came to see my mother when she was in the garden watering her roses and flowers. That garden was the most beautiful garden I have ever seen. It had many kinds of colors. But the most beautiful thing in my mother’s garden were the different kinds of butterflies.
I respect my mother because she taught me an important lesson. Do not listen to what people say. People say something to bother you, but don’t pay them any mind. My mother always said, “If they come to hit you then you defend yourself because you are not allowed to come home crying. I am going to make you cry more than them.” I can’t hate her for her violent days. It wasn’t her fault, it was my fault. I didn’t do my schoolwork. I always hung out in the street with my friends. She wanted me to be more disciplined. My mother is the most important person for me even though the way I love her is unique. I don’t want to think about the day she isn’t going to be with me anymore. I promised myself not to forget my mother’s lesson.
When I graduated from high school, my father said, “You should get your driver’s license. You can drive my car.” I was so happy he said that. I was so anxious about driving a car. I went online to see the written test for a driver’s license. I never studied for a test so hard before. The next week I went to the DMV to take my test. I passed the written test. I told my father. It looked like he was not happy. I went to driver’s school. I had to spend a lot of money to get my driver’s license, but it was worth it.
When I took the road test, I was nervous because I didn’t want to hit the curb. I passed the test and told my father. He acted like he didn’t hear me. When I received my driver’s license in the mail, I told my father. He said, “Don’t tell me you have your driver’s license. You can’t drive my car.” So I have a driver’s license, and don’t know what to do with it.
I have a friend who works in the Union as a carpenter. I work as a carpenter for a number of years myself. When I was in Jamaica, I always said that when I go to America, I would like to work in the Union.
One day I drove to my friend’s house to visit. We were talking and he said to me “Migel you are a carpenter and a good one too. I just remember, you said you would like to get in a Union.” He said, “My company is a Union company. When I go to work in the morning, I will go and talk to someone for you”.
He called me a week later and said he needed all my information to get me in the Union. He asked for my social security number and my date of birth to take to his supervisor. Soon after, I started working as Union carpenter.
I started working with a company named Prince. They worked me like a slave, but the pay was good. The rules are, each employee gets 15 minutes break. When you got the 15 minutes, you have to stand and eat and drink and use the restroom. If you sit down, you will lose you job.
Also, you cannot talk to anyone. If you are tired, you cannot sit. If you do, then you have to go home. I worked for one year because the pay was good. It was my worst job experience.
Then I started looking for another job. Soon after, I found one. The pay was good too. The name of the company is Curtis. I could sit and have my lunch for a whole hour without fear. It will soon be one year since I am working with them. I have no intention of leaving the company anytime soon.
“An Angry Wind On Wednesday” by Joseph Risi
One day I was coming to the Center for Reading and Writing from my home on Staten Island. On my way I looked all around me and saw that the wind was strong. When I had first come out, I put the trash out. Then I stopped and looked again and the trees were blowing crazy and weird. I thought a tornado was coming and it was scary. So I continued on my walk to the train. When I got to the Tottenville Station the waves were higher than normal. They were about six feet high and very rough. I thought at the time, before I knew the train was coming, that the waves would come over the tracks. Then if I would have relaxed on the platform the wind would have blown me off and I would have fallen on the track. So I said to the wind, “What are you, a man or a woman?” As soon as I said the word “woman” the strength of the wind got powerful. At the moment, I thought I should keep my mouth shut.
“An Unforgettable Weekend for Me and Willie” by Edward Seabron
“It must have been a fish nest,” I said. I would never forget the look on Willie’s face. It was one day after school. My cousin Willie and I had talked about when would be the right time for him to come home with me to spend the weekend. I said, “This weekend.” We would have a lot of things to do around the house, but I knew that he loved fishing. That’s all he talked about on the school bus all the way home. I was thinking about horseback riding, and maybe we would see some girls later on during the day.
He said, “For now let’s just go fishing.” We took the shortcut across the field and the pond was about five minutes away from the house. It was surrounded by some trees. On the side of the pond, there were crows and horses and an old boat sitting at the edge of the water.
We sat down in the boat and began to talk about things we had done in school. We just laid back and looked at the clouds in the sky as they moved overhead. We were laughing and talking for ten minutes before we sat up in the boat. As we rose, we saw that the cork of our fishing pole was pulled underneath the water. We began to pull up fish for about 15 minutes and each one was larger than the other one.
We couldn’t believe our eyes! It was scary for a moment, but afterwards we each had about 20 fish. That was the best fishing day of our lives. Whenever Willie and I get together, we always talk about this. This is a true story.
“The Church Celebration” by Monica Smith
Yesterday I went to church. The service was so beautiful. A lot of people came from different churches. Some came from other islands and my country Jamaica. There was a 40th anniversary celebration for the pastor of the church. A lot of people said nice things about the pastor.