My Cumby grandfather’s racism lay curled around the stoop rail like a concrete hound made alive. Heavy, slow, heaving - almost too much trouble to keep up with breathing. Somehow, it sighed.
Once, as a child, he said, he and his brothers had tied a black child to a tree and played slavery. A child myself, I put a finger in my mouth to pay excruciating attention to a hangnail. My hands my tell clear as tea leaves.
The story went on. The child was no more than three. My grandfather no more than six or seven. They were neighbors. I’ve been to the site of both houses. Nothing but glass from broken tail lights and disembodied flocks of daffodils show there was ever anything there. Lumber company land now.
“It was all in fun,” he said.
I don’t think it’d be fun to be tied to a tree. I’d be scared.
“Well no one would do that to you.”
I’d fight and scream and cry.
“I’d come a-running. I wouldn’t let them.”
No one stopped you, Hugh.
“No one needed to.”
Who would have? Stopped you.
“No one stopped you, Hugh” could have been his epitaph if he hadn’t been cremated. His ashes blew in our mouths as we tried to say the things you say when someone dies. We pretended against the wind.
Cumby derives from Cambow. Our first American ancestor was African. Remembered now.
- Jennifer Cumby is an editor at Dead Housekeeping.