Beyond the Colored Line is LIVE
“This story retells the history of many African-American families alive today. It is a heritage rich with strife and suffering but also filled with a hope and a desire to finally grasp the freedom that has been so elusive and out of reach for so many. At times, I was forced to accept some uncomfortable truths about our American past. There is nothing wrong with that. This story makes you think about freedom and what it really means to you as a person, and as an American. I loved this story because it is through the learning of other’s journeys that we begin to learn much about ourselves. Their pain becomes our pain and we begin to see through their eyes. Stella will touch your soul with such a sweet simplicity you won’t even know it.”
– Colleen Chesebro, on Stella: Beyond the Colored Line, First Edition
In book two, we dig deeper into the McNair family’s legacy. Named after her great-grandmother, Stella has a very light complexion which causes her to be the tease of her classmates. Unable to find solace among her African American contemporaries, Stella finds it challenging to adjust to a world where she is too light to be “black.” After The Great Depression of the 1930s forces Stella’s family to move to Chicago, a conversation with Aunt Sara provokes Stella to do something that will dramatically affect not just her life but the life of her children and grandchildren.
Daddy runs off to no one knows where on account of his life. Some racist whites had seen him and Mama together and threatened to lynch him if found, so he runs off. The community gossip is that his brothers know, but they won’t say. We weren’t alone, though, Mama and me. It seems like Mama filled the hole where Papa should have been with our whole family. The house always stayed filled with guests, my people, and peoples of my people. My granddaddy was a colored man and owned this land. My namesake, his Mama Stella, was a slave and was given this house by her owner. As the story goes, after Grandma died, I was born. Since Mama was the closest, she named me after her.
My aunts would gather around the table with my mama, and they laugh and cry most of the night about their girlhood. They would talk about what it was like being four mixed girls in Illinois. I don’t have uncles on my mother’s side, but Daddy got six brothers.
Due to the controversy around my parent’s relationship, Daddy being a Negro, and Mama being half-white, they only visit on special occasions. Uncle Roy, Daddy’s younger brother, says Mama acts differently around her sisters and that we too uppity, especially Aunt Sara. She’s the youngest of my aunties and the most spoiled. She’s the one who convinced Mama to send me to a white school in the first place, and boy was my uncles hot! They said we were breaking the law–that a Negro had no business in a white school. But Aunt Sara said I had all the right in the world since I was half white. For her, not only could I do this, I had a right to do it.
“But does the school know she a Negro?” Uncle Roy would ask.
“That’s none of the school’s business, now is it?” Aunt Sara would say, and they’d go back and forth until Mama break it up.
Not all talks were good talks. I used to sit until my eyes were red with fatigue to hear Mama and my uncles talk about all the killings that were taking place around the country, and especially in the South. I felt like I lived in two worlds, one black and one white, but none mixed. And what did that mean, mixed?
My aunties wanted to talk about education, family, career, and navigating the world as a mixed-race person, whereas Daddy’s side liked to talk about the black condition, what was going on in the black community, and what it meant to be black in America. They talked less about blacks navigating a world that they felt didn’t include them, and more about blacks redefining themselves and creating their own worlds. The conversations were intriguing and fascinating on both sides, but it left me feeling like my very body was a contradiction. Was I white? Was I black? Race wars always involved these two groups of people, and there ain’t seemed to be room for a mulatto.
“That’s what I say,” said the voice of Uncle Keith, Daddy’s second oldest brother.
“Up there in Minnesota.”
“That close?” Mama gasped.
“Yeah, that close. What woman, you living under a rock? They just had one over in DeKalb last month,” said Uncle Roy.
“It’s a crying-out-loud shame,” continued Keith. “Say they dragged the boys from the cell and a whole mob of ‘em lynched ‘em. Say it was ‘bout a thousand of ‘em.”
“My my,” said Aunt Rebecca.
There were times even I witnessed evidence of the events rocking the country. One day, Mama and I went to visit Cousin Mary in Texas and drove the truck up to a general store. We walked in, and I picked up a postcard from a rack. It was of a man hanging on a tree that supported an iron chain that lifted him above a fire. The man didn’t seem to have much of a body left. They cut his fingers off, his ears and his body was burned to a crisp. On the back of the postcard read: “This is the barbecue we had last night. My picture is to the left with a cross over it. Your son, Dan.”
I learned later the picture was of a seventeen-year-old mentally ill boy named, Johnny, who had agreed to have raped a white woman. And everybody at home still talked of the Cairo Circus of 1909, the public lynching that took place here in Illinois. I couldn’t understand why Mama was so upset about a circus until I found out what kind of spectacle it was. My aunts didn’t want anything to do with the land or the house because of events like these. They say it’s too close to slavery. No one wanted to inherit the home or the property, but Mama, and this is how I spent several years of my life living in the same house where my great-grandmother had been a slave. Mama kept the house full of guests by renting out rooms to help with her washerwoman salary.
We weren’t much of a churchgoing family, party going is more like it, unless Mama wanted to show off a new dress or hat when somebody died or needed saving and on holidays and such. Folk would come from all over southern Illinois to hang out with “Cousin Judy.” Sundays sure were fun, my second favorite day of the week. Saturdays were my favorite day of the week. It was the day for shopping, and that only meant one thing, Chicago.
First, Mama would wake me to the smell of biscuits or pancakes. This massive breakfast was to keep me full enough throughout the day, so she didn’t have to worry any about food buying. Then, she commanded me to bathe real good, paint my arms and legs with coconut oil, untie my curls, and we’d both put on our Sunday’s best and be two of the most beautiful women you’d ever seen. I was a young lady now, and shopping was the best thing for a young lady, next to boys, but you couldn’t like them in public.
You could like shopping, though, and I loved going from store to store in search of the finest. I skipped along while Mama scanned the insides of magazines for stuff she heard about from the white women whose laundry she cleaned. We would squeeze our way through crowds of people, just bumping into each other. Everyone dressed in their weekend wear and bought ice cream for their children. Some went to see the picture show, and so did Mama and me. We could buy candy or jewelry, or perhaps a new hat or two. We could drink from water fountains without a label and spend money without prejudice.
We had a good time on Saturdays because on Saturday, no one knew we were colored.