Read Assata: An Autobiography Online

Authors: Assata Shakur

Tags: #Non-Fiction, #Biography, #Feminism, #History, #Politics, #Biography & Autobiography, #Cultural Heritage, #Historical, #Fiction, #Social Science, #Ethnic Studies, #African American Studies, #Black Studies (Global)

Assata: An Autobiography (4 page)

BOOK: Assata: An Autobiography
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But my days were not spent simply daydreaming. My grand parents were firm believers in work. They had worked all of their lives and there was no way they were gonna tolerate any "lazy good-for-nothin's" around them. Every day there were chores to do and there was no playing until they were completed. I did things like putting the potato chips on the racks, putting sodas in the cooler, wiping the tables clean, etc. When customers were there, i would sell small stuff like potato chips, Nabs, pickles, and pickled pigs' feet. I would also set the tables and bring customers things they needed. But my main job was collecting fifty cents for parking. Because there was no road to our beach (the paved road ended with the white section), my grandparents had to pay for a dirt road and parking lot to be laid over the sand. Truckloads of dirt were brought and a steamroller mashed it down so that it was hard enough to drive on. This was an expensive process, so my grand parents decided to charge fifty cents for parking. I could count and make change at a very early age, so it was my job to collect the fifty cents. During the week it wasn't too time-consuming, but on the weekends, if the weather was nice, it was an all-day job.

Cars and buses of people came from all over North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia. There were church groups, school groups, social clubs, women's clubs, boy scouts, and girl scouts. All kinds of people would come to the beach, some with a little money and some that you could tell were real poor. In all the years i spent on that beach, only one or two people hassled me. Most of them treated me very kindly, just like i was their kid.

The people who came to the beach fascinated me. I loved to see them come and go. After a while, i would recognize the regulars and it didn't take me too long to learn their names. Some of them gave me tips, which i usually spent on the picolo (jukebox). There were lots of lovers and i spent some of my time spying on them in the parking lot, but they weren't too interesting. All they did was squirm a lot. Checking license plates (i could recognize almost all of the states' license plates on sight) and collecting bugs (i had a huge collection) were much more interesting. But watching families was better, on their picnics with their fried chicken, potato salads, and watermelons. Some of them looked so happy you could tell they didn't get a chance to go to many picnics. And i was always on the watch for kids to play with when I wasn't busy.

Then there were the goodtimers. Their cars smelled like whiskey. They would dance a lot, eat a lot, spend a lot on the picolo, and many times i would wonder if they had made it home all right.

A lot of poor people came to the beach. Sometimes the floors of their raggedy old cars or trucks were half rotted out. Usually a lot of little children were with them and they wouldn't have bathing suits. They went swimming in whatever clothes they had worn to the beach, and half the time the little kids wore nothing. Then there were those who came to put on airs, usually in the evening, all dressed up, to eat dinner.

Many would say, "I can't stand the sun," "I'm too Black already, I ain't goin' out in no sun." It was amazing the number of people who said they were too Black already. We looked at them like they were crazy because we loved the sun. But the umbrellas for rent went like hotcakes. Some people draped clothes and blankets around the umbrellas so that no light penetrated whatsoever. One lady always put a paper bag on her head and poked holes in it for her eyes. Some of the women refused to go near the water because they were afraid their hair would "go bad."

One of the moving things for me was when someone saw the ocean for the first time. It was amazing to watch. They would stand there, in awe, overpowered and overwhelmed, as if they had come face to face with God or with the vastness of the universe. I remember one time a preacher brought an old lady to the beach. She was the oldest-looking person i had ever seen. She said that she just wanted to see the ocean before she died. She stood there in one spot for so long she looked like she was in a trance. Then, with the help of the preacher, she hobbled around, picked up the mundane shells, and put them into her handkerchief as if they were the most precious things in the world.

I loved to eat (still do) and the beach was right up my alley. Right now, when i think of the fried chicken and fish dinners, my mouth starts to water. But what really sends me off is remembering those seafood platters with fish, shrimps, oysters, deviled crab, clam fritters, and french fries with lettuce and tomatoes on the side. If my memory is any good, i think they sold for $1.50.

Next to food, music was my love. Fats Domino, Nat King Cole, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, the Platters, Brook Benton, Bobby "Blue" Bland, James Brown, Dinah Washington, Maxine Brown, Big Maybelle were some of the people I listened to during those beach years. I loved to dance. They would play that music and i would dance my natural heart out. That was another way i collected tips. People would egg me on, "Go on, gal, go. Boy, looket that little girl dance." But i loved to see people dance, too. Many a time my grandmother or grandfather had to call me out of the trance i was in watching somebody dance instead of doing my chores.

At night, my cousins, who sometimes came over to work on the beach, told ghost stories. They loved to tell them to me because i would get scared out of my wits. They would tell me about people who came back from the dead, about snakes that could crawl a hundred miles an hour and beat you to death with their tails, and about red phantoms and haints and all kinds of other horrible things. My imagination was vivid, and before the night was over the sea grass turned to monsters and the wind made ghost howls.

Sometimes even my grandmother and grandfather would get into the ghost story sessions. My grandfather's favorite one goes like this: He was driving home in a terrible storm one night. It was lightning and thundering like crazy. He saw lightning hit a tree ahead of him and saw the tree fall across the road. He tried to stop, but it was too late. He braced himself to hit the tree, but nothing happened. The car went smoothly through it as if it weren't there. He turned around and, sure enough, the tree was still lying across the road. He swears that the story is true and i'm convinced that he thoroughly believes it is.

We were, however, visited by real, live ghosts. They were the phantoms of the parking lot. It seems that the white citizens of Wilmington and Carolina Beach were not at all happy that my grandparents had dared to build on the land and to start a "colored" business. We were too close for their comfort. So they would visit us from time to time to express their disapproval. I don't know for a fact that they were card-carrying members of the Klan, but, judging from their behavior, i think they were. But then, of course, they weren't wearing their sheets. They could've just been red blooded amerikan boys out for some good clean fun. The parking lot was made of dirt, and cars spinning around on it at breakneck speed would ruin it in no time. Two or three of them would ride around the parking lot, spinning and skidding, while they shouted curses and racist insults. One time they fired guns in the air. I remember seeing them and hearing them out there and wondering what they were gonna do next. More than once i saw my grand father go to where he kept his gun and carry it quietly to where he had been sitting. Somehow this made me more afraid, because i knew that he, too, thought they were scary.

Finally my grandfather put a big fat chain, almost as big as the kind used to anchor ships, across the road at the entrance to the parking lot. This soon eliminated our nightly visitors.

One night, as my grandmother and i were fastening the chain in place and locking it, a white man drove up to the lot and, in an arrogant tone of voice, ordered my grandmother to open the gate so that he could turn his car around. My grandmother, looking very dignified, said, "No, I can't let you do that." Then, in a nicer voice, he asked my grandmother again to open the gate. "No," she said again. "Come on now, auntie, I got a mammy in my house. Now open the gate and lemme turn around." "Wha'd you say?" asked my grandmother. "I said I got a mammy in my house, now come on, open up." My grandmother leaned over in the man's face. "I don't care how many mammies you got in your house. I don't care if you've got a hundred mammies in your house, you're gonna back out of here tonight. And I want you off of my property now! Right now!"

That man turned as red as a redneck can turn and started to back his car up. The road was very narrow, barely wide enough for one car, and there was no way he could turn around without getting stuck in the sand. He backed up for more than a quarter of a mile. As we looked at him backing up, my grandmother and i laughed so hard the tears fell from our eyes.

Every day when we drove from the house on Seventh Street to the beach, we passed a beautiful park with a zoo. And every day i would beg, plead, whine, and nag my grandmother to take me to the zoo. It was almost an obsession. She would always say that "one day" she would take me, but "one day" never came. I would sit in the car pouting, thinking how mean she was. I thought that she had to be the meanest woman on the face of the earth. Finally, with the strangest look on her face, she told me that we were not allowed in the zoo. Because we were Black.

When we were on the beach we shopped at Carolina Beach. It had an amusement park, but of course Black people were not permitted to go in. Every time we passed it i looked at the merry-go round and the Ferris wheel and the little cars and airplanes and my heart would just long to ride them. But my favorite forbidden ride had little boats in a pool of water, and every time i passed them i felt frustrated and deprived. Of course, persistent creature that i am, i always asked to be taken on the rides, knowing full well what the answer would be. One summer my mother and sister and i were walking down the boardwalk. My mother was spending part of her summer helping my grandparents in the business. As soon as we neared the rides, i went into my usual act. I continued, ad nauseam, until my mother, grinning, said. "All right now, I'm gonna try to get us in. "When we get over there, I don't want to hear one word out of either of you. Just let me do the talking. And if they ask you anything, don't answer. Okay? Okay!"

My mother went over to the ticket booth and began talking. I didn't understand a word she was saying. The lady at the ticket window kept telling my mother that she couldn't sell her any tickets. My mother kept talking, very fast, and waving her hands. The manager came over and told my mother she couldn't buy any tickets and that we couldn't go into the park. My mother kept talking and waving her hands and soon she was screaming this foreign language. I didn't know if she was speaking a play language or a real one. Several other men came over. They talked to my mother. She continued. After the men went to one side and had a conference, they returned and told the ticket seller to give my mother the tickets.

I couldn't believe it. All at once we were laughing and giggling and riding the rides. All the white people were staring at us, but we didn't care. We were busy having a ball. "When i got into one of those little boats, my mother practically had to drag me out. I was in my glory. When we finished the rides we went to the Dairy Queen for ice cream. We sang and laughed all the way home.

When we got home my mother explained that she had been speaking Spanish and had told the managers that she was from a Spanish country and that if he didn't let us in she would call the embassy and the United Nations and i don't know who all else. We laughed and talked about it for days. But it was a lesson i never forgot. Anybody, no matter who they were, could come right off the boat and get more rights and respect than amerikan-born Blacks.

My first school experience was Mrs. Perkins's school in Wilmington. It was a little two-room school on Red Cross Street where i learned the fundamentals of reading, writing, and arithmetic. I was four years old. Mrs. Perkins's school was the closest thing to nursery school that Black people in Wilmington had, but she didn't play that baby play stuff. We were there to learn. I was prone to colds, however, and i guess the potbellied stove in the school didn't give off enough heat. I was out sick more than i was in school. But i learned enough so that when i went to first grade, everything was easy. I could already read.

I spent most of first grade in New York with my mother, the rest of the first and all of the second down South with my grand parents. I went to Gregory Elementary School in Wilmington. My reachers knew my grandparents well and gave them daily reports of my progress. The teachers were strict and believed solemnJy in the paddle, but we learned.

Of course, our school was segregated, but the teachers took more of an interest in our lives because they lived in our world, in the same neighborhoods. They knew what we were up against and what we would be facing as adults, and they tried to protect us as much as they could. More than once we were punished because some children had made fun of a student who was poor and badly dressed. I'm not saying that segregation was a good system. Our schools were inferior. The books were used and torn, handed down from white schools. We received only a fraction of the state money allotted to white schools, and the conditions under which many Black children received an education can only be described as horrible. But Black children encountered support and understand ing and encouragement instead of the hostile indifference they often met in the "integrated" schools.

There was a big dirt yard next to the school where we would play and fight. We grew up fighting; it was really hard to get through school without a few fights, just to survive. But i always wondered what made people fight. Especially after we learned about wars. I used to look out on the remains of the sunken ship that tilted up in front of our beach and wonder how people had died in it. It was covered with green moss and i imagined skeletons floating around inside. The ship had been sunk during the Civil War and i always wondered if it carried Northerners or Southerners. Back in those days i used to think the Northerners were the good guys.

BOOK: Assata: An Autobiography
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