Memoir


Who Am I

…And Mistakes Made Along the Way


a Memoir by Fred Beauford


Prologue

Most people hate to admit to mistakes, especially the personal kind which could call into question the very essence of who they are, and how their personhood measures up to others. They have learned the hard lesson that others are just waiting to pounce, with unforgivable ferocity, when they point out a personal lapse in good judgment on their part: “Oh no, I must say, with no disrespect intended, but even you must admit that that was pretty dumb. That wouldn’t have been me. I learned long ago not to do something so obviously foolish.”

Ouch, and double ouch!

Speaking of the obvious, it is quite apparent from a statement like that, that we human beings obviously love one-upping each other and casting our own fragile existence in the most favorable light—auteur filmmakers of our own lives, if you will.

So why give anyone the clear, obvious opening by confessing to fallibility, and revealing a “dumb” self one would be better served to conceal.

Yet, in this memoir, which will recount aspects of my long, and yet, surprisingly, short stay on earth, I will give example after example of myself displaying rank ignorance, wide-eyed naivety and just plain willful foolishness.

I was inspired to write this book for many reasons. For one, I have that one thing that will inspire any writer: a willing publisher, and the fact that I own the publishing company, along with my brother. This is a far cry from the begging and groveling I had to go through when I first started writing in 1997, before I took matters into my own hands.

A book I read also inspired me. After the publication of my novel The King Of Macy’s, the question then became, what’s next? I no longer had an excuse not to write. It didn’t hurt that I now wrote a book column and knew intimately what the major houses were publishing. Soon, out of the large numbers of books I received daily, one stuck out.

So, I took my own best advice and picked up Leo Damrosch’s Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius. When I was a university professor teaching creative writing, I would often advise my students that when they were in a deep funk and feeling as if none of it made any sense, or that they would ever get anywhere in such a strange field—not to read the works of famous writers, but instead, to read their biographies. (I deliberately recommended biographies over autobiographies, because writers, especially the creative types, tend to lie a lot!).

I made my recommendation because I knew they would see the ups and downs, the total despair and self-doubt, the never ending rejections, and the occasional triumphs that are part of almost every serious writer’s career. They would see that some famous writers such as Herman Melville and Zora Neale Hurston, died broke and obscure, total failures, only to be discovered years later, lionized, and become a part of the world’s literary canon, as they well deserved; or like the great Langston Hughes, who wrote his best poem, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" when he was only nineteen, and was never able to top himself, yet was still the first black man in America to make a living almost solely off of his writings.

Or the numbers of writers, from D.H. Lawrence, to Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Henry Miller, and Allen Ginsberg, to name a few, who had to self-publish, publish abroad, or publish with obscure publishers.

All of this recommended reading was meant to give them insight into what it means to be a writer, and for them not to despair at small, or large, setbacks and slights, or see themselves solely as a black, white, woman, Jewish, or gay writer, but instead as a part of a brave, noble continuum; one writer after another, male and female, straight or gay, religious or non-religious-- all the races of the earth, slowly building on a long, world-wide tradition which speaks to that which is most human in all of us.

And sure enough, there it all was in Damrosch’s Jean-Jacques Rousseay:Restless Genius artfully laid out in black and white: a restless youth, motherless, with a father who sent him away at an early age, someone unable to hold a job, thought of as someone who had no ideas of his own, self-educated, socially inept, and had failed sexual relationships with women. In fact, it was only around page 200 in a 494 page book, when Rousseau was in his thirties, that he finally wrote something worthwhile.

This was at a time when most people were dead by forty.

Of course, as you literary types well know, he went on to arguably become one of France’s greatest writers, and one of the world’s most well known authors. His ideas, and his greatest literary invention, and greatest gift to us, is the modern autobiography. His Confessions depicted the individual for the first time as a unique, special creature, one who takes center stage over God. ( it seems that actors and sports stars have taken the place of God as far as most modern American publishers are concerned).

I am not claiming to be the American Rousseau (although I do have a French last name). I wouldn’t reject the honor, either, because I soon saw myself on the pages of Damrosch’s excellent book.

I soon found myself unable to put the book down, and found myself cheering Rousseau on, hardly able to wait to turn the pages because I knew he would ultimately triumph.

So, with Rousseau’s example in mind, I began this book.

November 19,2005, 12:05pm
Border's Book Store, Third Floor
Third Street Promenade
Santa Monica, CA.


Chapter One--
The Morton’s of Virginia

The first memory that I remember clearly was living with a woman named Mrs. Jones. I can’t picture her in my mind. I don’t know if she was young or old, lived alone or with a husband, was fair skin or was as black as the ace of spades. I just know that I lived there in her house with my two brothers, and we often played a game we called “blackout.”

We would make the sound of loud sirens going off, and jump up on the bed and pull the shades down, or cover the windows with whatever we could find. I had no idea why we were playing such a game. In the rank ignorance of a four-year-old, how was I supposed to know that I was living in coastal Asbury Park, New Jersey, in 1944, and everyone, young and old, played “blackout.” The grown-ups, however, played it with a deadly seriousness, with real sirens going off, afraid that one day it wouldn’t be role playing at all, but that the Germans or the Japanese were really overhead, ready to bomb them out of existence.

But, just as the picture of living with Mrs. Jones started becoming clearer, and was beginning to fix itself permanently in my mind with this strange thing we call memory, without any warning that I know of, I found myself, along with by two brothers, pulling up in a taxi to a large white house in Northern Virginia. Standing in the yard to greet us was a friendly looking, fair skinned older woman who looked a lot like the woman who came and took us away from Mrs. Jones, and called herself our mother.

It was my first introduction to the world of the Morton’s of Virginia.

Our mother only stayed with us for a few days and was gone, to where I did not know, and strangely, if I remember correctly, did not care. We didn’t see her again for almost two years.

Life on the big farm with my grandparents was a grand adventure. Now, both as an emotionally detached historian with a detailed knowledge of American history, and as the equally detached novelist with an ability to silently eavesdrop unnoticed and to listen closely to seemingly irrelevant and disconnected bits of conversation, and piece them together, I know a great deal about that farm and how my Grandfather came into it.

It once belonged to my Grandmother’s father, a white man, “Old Mr. Hudson.” It was also once a breeding farm, a part of the unspoken history of America, a history that was more real, and more important than George Washington’s wooden teeth, or his chopping down a cherry tree and lying about never telling a lie.

During the antebellum period of American Slavery, a perfect storm occurred.

First, in 1793, an enterprising young man by the name of Eli Whitney invented the Cotton Gin. The mechanization of spinning in England had created a greatly expanded market for U.S. cotton, but production was bottlenecked by the manual removal of the seeds from the raw fiber. The Cotton Gin changed that, and is credited with making cotton virtually the only crop of the U.S. south. It became the oil of its day.

Second, the United States doubled in size in 1803 with Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase, as Deep South states like Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, became a part of the young country.

Third, there was Mother Nature, or the nature of the climate. Here’s what I wrote in an essay in my book, The Rejected American, after attending a NAACP Convention in Nashville, Tennessee, in the middle of July: “As I stepped off the plane on that late July day and the heavy, oppressive southern air hit me, I immediately understood slavery once again, as I had a few years earlier on a late July day in New Orleans, or a few years before that in Baltimore, Dallas and Washington, D.C.

“Before machines, and fans, and air conditioning, this rich land was useless to the Northern Europeans. How could they have made use of this land without the African?”

Here’s how Governor Johnson of Georgia, in a speech in Philadelphia on Sept. 17, 1856, bluntly put the problem the whites faced, thinking as I had, years later: “They cannot hire labor to cultivate rice swamps, ditch their low ground, or drain their morasses. And why? Because the climate is deadly to the white man. He could not go there and live a week; and therefore the vast territory would be a barren waste unless Capital owned labor.”

All of this created a greater demand for slaves. This demand was compounded by the fact that the African slave trade officially ended in 1810. So when we get to the antebellum period of American slavery, any high-minded talk of possible freedom for blacks slowly came to an end in the south. As David Brion Davis notes in his thoughtful little book, Challenging the Boundaries of Slavery, “Southern slave-grown cotton was by far the nation’s leading export. It powered textile manufacturing in both New England and England, and it paid for American imports of everything from steel to investment capital. Moreover, since the price of slaves continued to soar through the antebellum decades, American slaves represented more capital than any other asset in the nation, with the exception of land. In 1860, the value of Southern slaves was about three times the value of the capital stock in manufacturing and railroads nationwide.”

This “black gold” ushered in one of the most horrendous aspects of American slavery: The Inter-state slave trade.

Breeding blacks for sale to the large cotton plantations in the Deep South, was far more profitable for my white relatives than growing crops. In this part of the world, from the end of the official slave trade in 1810, to the Civil War, the only crop that mattered was the one that would ultimately walk, talk, think, dream, and pick cotton.

***

But I knew nothing of this at such a young age, although this was a profound history I was personally and intimately connected to. In the year or so that I lived on my grandparents’ farm, slavery was never spoken of, although everyone of us on that farm deep in rural North Virginia lived in the shadow of all the great themes in American history -- slavery, miscegenation, night riders, the bloody Civil War in which 600,000 combatants, 7 percent of the American population, died -- parts of which were fought on this very soil.

When I was staying there, someone was always uncovering something half buried in the soil: a confederate soldier’s canteen here, a Union cap there, a spent musket shot, an Army issue belt buckle; all of which spoke in a quiet eloquence, of days not that long ago, days that were filled with the terrifying cries of the dying and injured, with dense smoke, awesome explosions, and bloody human limbs flying gruesomely through the air, torn suddenly apart from their bodies.

The air was also filled with tearful, fearful cries to an indifferent god, to “save me, please God, save me!”

This God the soldiers prayed so passionately to, so desperately to, did nothing to stop the brutality, but turned away, seemingly unconcerned; perhaps in a state of total disgust.

Or, perhaps, with a little tear, feeling a deep sympathy, or maybe feeling nothing -- allowed the carnage to go on, perhaps saying to itself, “This is what you deserve.”

The unspeakable horrors this beautiful land once held – all because my English relatives didn’t like picking cotton, but lusted after material things, and power over others, was now peaceful, with only those small reminders we kids found exploring our environment.

I only caught occasional whispers which hinted at this awful past, catching occasional knowing, inside jokes, including a comment my grandmother once made because I was so scrawny looking, that in the “old days” they would have been taken me out in the woods and shot me.

My wise grandfather only slowly, but knowingly, nodded his head, and then made his famous pronouncement: “That boy is going to be a preacher one day. Mark my words.”

I didn’t know who “they” were who wanted to shoot me, but I knew I didn’t want to be a preacher, although I now know I was being paid a great compliment. When my grandmother took us to the little church that sat alone on a large lot of land in the middle of nowhere, on Sundays, I could barely contain my laughter. It seemed that the preacher was acting in such a stupid fashion, screaming at the top of his voice, waving his hands and arms around frantically, causing women to jump up and faint where they were standing, with the preacher running back and forth like someone possessed by an evil devil, and the entire church in an uproar.

It seemed to me that the preacher was acting just plain silly, even as he yelled, “Jesus, precious Jesus!,” and caused women to faint dead away.

I would furtively glance over to one of my brothers and we would start giggling as my grandmother watched the preacher intently, entranced, as were all of the adults.

I remember that the preacher had a long, bald head with a slight indentation in the middle of his head. The kids called him “Two heads.” After the word got out that my Grandfather said I would someday be just like him, the kids started teasing me unmercifully, and I was saddled with my first nickname, “Two heads.”

Even at that young age, I knew with absolute certainty that I surely didn’t want to be like that preacher, and I certainly didn’t have two heads!

In the end, for me and my brothers, this large farm, with its many cousins and uncles and aunts, and who knows what else, was the playground of playgrounds. This was now our world. And what a world it was. It was filled with apple trees, peach trees, pear trees, bright red tomatoes, melons, corn, pigs, chickens, cows, two white horses, one a large male, the other a smaller female, who pulled the wagon that served as our means of transportation.

It was a world of “Slopping the hogs,” canning fruits and vegetables, smoking hams; chopping wood for heat and cooking; milking the cow and making buttermilk and butter; getting water from the well for cooking, drinking and heating, taking a weekly bath in a large tin pot; chopping the head off a chicken for dinner, and watching and wondering how long it would run around, headless, until it would finally topple over.

The sight of the headless chicken would always bring loud laughter and amazement as we watched in utter fascination as the hapless chicken ran around from here to there, just like a chicken with no head on!

We would watch as my grandfather and uncles slaughtered the fat pigs, cleaned out the smelly outhouse, and gathered hay in large piles during the Fall. Delicious food was served daily on platters at a large table were everyone sat down together to enjoy the great meals grandmother had spent most of her waking time constantly preparing.

In many ways, I know now, with the exception of electricity, and a radio, this land, and this farm, which is still in my family, was exactly like it was in the “old days” when the European settlers owned the place, and a big, broad-shouldered black man was assured of having as much sex as he could handle, and a skinny little runt like me would have been taken to the woods and shot.

***

I have several strong memories implanted in my mind of those days. One was the day my friendly grandfather grabbed me between his legs and gave me several hard wracks to my small behind. It seemed that I had wandered off from the task he had assigned me to: pulling some weeds from the potato patch.

I learned two important lessons that day. One, farming was a very serious business. Second, Granddad, friendly fellow that he was, was not one to be messed with, and if he told you to do something, you sure as hell better do it!

The other small task assigned to me and my brothers -- Robert, who was one year younger, and Richard, who was four years older -- was to take the horses back to their pasture after they were unhitched from the wagon upon delivering grandfather, and whomever else, to the big house.

This evening, our cousin Junior, who was slightly older than Richard, joined us. He and I were riding the big male, and Richard and Robert were on the smaller female.

Soon, someone shouted, “Let’s race!” and off we went, whooping and hollering at the top on our voices while slapping away at the horses.

The big male started pulling away, as I hung on tightly to Junior. All of a sudden the female stopped and bucked, throwing Richard to the ground, and I watched as Robert flew straight up into the air and landed hard on his head.

It seemed that Richard, seeing that he was going to lose the race, stabbed his horse with a pencil, which she took great exception to, almost killing Robert in the process. Robert turned out not to suffer any injury and neither did Richard. We later all laughed at what had happened.

After that, Richard acquired quite a reputation for doing wild and crazy things, as the story of how he stabbed the horse with a pencil spread amongst the children. But today, I think about how actor Christopher Reeve, Superman himself, was also thrown off a horse and landed on his head and died from it, and I shutter at what could have been the outcome for Robert. Instead, he survived to live a long, fruitful life.

The other memory is more vague, and still shrouded in deep mystery. On some occasions, I had to take some food to an elderly white couple who lived in a little run-down cabin deep in the mountainous woods. I think it stayed in my mind because their home sat next to a large nut tree. I can still remember gathering some nuts lying on the ground on my way back home. But who were these people? Why was grandmother so concerned about their survival, as she obviously was, as she told me more than once to hurry on with my package and not “dilly dally,” and come right back?

I think I once heard someone say that they were related to “old Mr. Hudson,” and were my grandmother’s uncle and aunt, my great uncle, and great aunt.

Again, in those days there were just things no one spoke of, so who knows.

I never said anything to the old white couple, but just handed the old lady her food, and I think she would always smile, toothless, and ask, “How’s Lula?” Lula was my grandmother.

***

Just like in Asbury Park, one day, without warning, a woman who looked like a younger version of my grandmother, and called herself our mother, showed up, and the next thing we knew, all four of us were on a train again, this time, we would soon learn, as the train slowly pulled out of Culpepper, Virginia, we were headed to Buffalo, New York.

I never saw my grandfather again. He died of colon cancer a few years after we had left, much, much too young, and the farm went into decline, as most of his twelve children, like blacks all across the south, fled north as soon as they could, to places like Detroit, Philadelphia, Buffalo, and in my mother’s case, ultimately, New York City, desperately seeking to escape forever, the non-stop, back-breaking, primitive existence of the rural south.

My grandmother, however, lived on the farm well into until her nineties and it was my destiny as a teenager, to spend several more happy summers staying in that big, white house.

I am convinced that I took something important, something life sustaining from that brief stay with both of my grandparents at that young age. They had had 12 children, all of whom lived to adulthood. They had built one of the most thriving farms in Northern Virginia, and one of the largest one owned by blacks in the south, at a time in American history when hostilities against blacks were at their peak and most blacks lived in abject poverty.

Even as young as I was, I could see the great respect accorded my family, and especially to my grandfather, by everyone, black and white. I knew instinctively, in the very marrow of my being, that the Morton’s were aristocrats, as far as aristocrats went in that part of the world. And I know now, without thinking about it, or saying it out loud, but just knowing silently that I had sprung from these two exceptional people-- that their influence has seen me through the many insults and perils that laid in wait for me as an adult in America.

And when Robert and I founded Morton Books, there was no question whose name it would bear.


Return to home page

Go To Current Issue