Sofia and Harpo Hood
Sofia and Harpo Hood lived through such oppression Sam swore it was the reason they were such defeatists. Some said they lacked ambition or they were good for nothin’ and lazy.
They freely admitted to not being driven by ambition. Their dour sensibility and defeatist attitude may have been connected to two of their three sons abandoning them but Sam wasn’t sure what went on in their heads.
He thought it was as if they lived in a self-imposed slave code dating back to the last dark days of Jim Crow or when it was illegal to read and write. Once, he read an excerpt that knocked the wind out of his sails and Sam was able to stop judging his parents.
It was unlawful to operate a restaurant or other place for serving of food in the city, at which white and colored people are served in the same room, unless such white and colored persons are effectually separated by a solid partition extending from the floor upward to a distance of seven feet or higher and unless a separate entrance from the street is provided for each compartment. (6)
Any thought that the aftereffects Jim Crow could be gone in a generation would have to expect a child not to inherit mannerisms, speech patterns and gestures from his parents. Effects of Jim Crow would take centuries to eliminate. It wasn’t something his folks were going to shake off.
At five years old he’d been confused and embarrassed when an old timer would correct his subservience, “yessir, nossir, yessir, You better be careful you be sounding like your Uncle Tom boy, boy, boy!” he’d be told with a menacing look. Sam figured it was something he’d understand when he got older. All he knew was they didn’t have an Uncle Tom in the family.
He learned to read minds and body language by predicting his parents behavior. Unconsciously he must have known what made them happy and what got him into trouble so he acted accordingly. His ability to read people was strong enough he could probably open a fortune telling shop. When he saw characteristics in others he lacked the guts to tell them for fear of conflict. You think you know me Sam! Getting involved made mischief and generated into worrisome night sweats so he kept his mouth shut.
Harpo’s views were often pro status quo and against his own people. He thought the so called southern strategy was a reality where Republicans created a fear of black people so the general public blamed them for economic troubles, believing it gave him an excuse to be a constant downer.
“Perhaps the government is afraid of a revolution after all they done to us,” Sofia said, toggling between what people wanted to hear and her own hidden agenda.
“The whites in power are afraid we’ll retaliate. I don’t blame them but how can they not expect it. They’d retaliate all the same if the tables were turned. It’s easy for them to stay two steps ahead by framing us,” Harpo said.
“Dunno how anyone’s ever gonna change that!” Harpo said.
“I swear to God if we just teamed up with those honkey trash fools, we’d be some powerful enough to overthrow things!” Sofia said. A natural ally to the black community would have been impoverished whites but politicians painted them as bitter adversaries.
“Can’t trust the yahoo rednecks to keep allegiance. Especially the way the blue eyed devils stare at you. It’s the way it is and the way it’s always been,” Harpo said, skepticism was an understatement.
Sam’s folks mentality was so old school they didn’t want to hear about anything else. They kept close to others they’d grown up with so lived in a fishbowl. Like many of their contemporaries they lacked trust in government, law and society overall, leaving trust to swap dog kin, an expression used to describe love and friendship amongst those with like experiences. Harpo had many aunts and uncles who’d taken him under their wing as comrades in mutual oppression.
When they covered Martin Luther King Jr. in class some boys groaned but Sam perked up. They were assigned essays based on listening to audio recordings of his speeches. One example King noted was when the Alabama governor stood in the schoolhouse door blocking entrance and preventing two African American students from enrolling.
It was nasty no matter how you sliced it!
Sam dreamt of getting the hell out of Alabama, maybe even venturing as far north as New York or Boston. The trouble was he lacked the backbone to forecast beyond his dreams.
With parents like his, it wasn’t a huge surprise he’d put his woman first. Sofia had always demanded it and acted of her own free will not in accordance with men or with what the public expected of her. It didn’t take much for her stoicism to give way to sanctimony. To put it simply, she wore the pants in the family!
Sofia was a strong woman who could have fixed a roof if she’d wanted to and she might have preferred if Harpo had raised the boys. Her assertiveness wasn’t limited to her husband or townsfolk as she often got into trouble saying the wrong thing. It wasn’t an admirable quality in a woman so there’d been many a detractor. Her pent up anger was ever simmering beneath the surface so Sam was careful in making decisions for fear of reprisal.
As was passed down from her mother, Sofia was a masterful chef who could have run her own restaurant. She specialized in distinctly Southern dishes like fried chicken, okra, green beans and mashed taters with pan gravy. She could turn corn into any kind of meal, from hoecakes, to hominy and grits. Sam’s favorite was spicy deep fried balls called Hush Puppies named for treats to keep the dogs quiet and prevent them from begging at the table.
On Sundays before Easter every year, Sofia had the homemade fudge pans and paraphernalia set out so invited guests could partake in fudge making after church. “Who else remembers eating the test fudge? Where you pour a tablespoon of boiling fudge into a cup of cold water to see if it makes a ball. We kids fought for those bits of chocolate that weren’t quite ready,” she said.
She had taught Sam how to make flour biscuits, “God willing you’ll have a wife cooking for you but nowadays you need to know your way around the kitchen. Can’t have my boy eating out of tins! When I was a young girl, being able to make biscuits and homemade gravy was a rite of passage. Us women would be in the kitchen watching, talking and laughing at the old stories. Your grand mamma was so high-strung; she’d whup us if we didn’t follow her recipe to a T. Oh them were the good ole days,” Sofia said, reveling in Sam’s undivided attention.
Sofia had worked hard being a son to her father, perhaps it was why she used aggression as a defense mechanism. Plus she was raised in a home where she had to fend off sexual advances of fathers, uncles and cousins.
“Oh Sam, you shoulda seen the jaws drop when I appeared as pallbearer your grand mamma’s funeral. She must’ve been laughing down from heaven that day,” she said.
Sofia was aligned to the black community and unimpressed by Sam’s choice in a light skinned flower named Eunice. Her tactic was to generate doubt in his mind regarding his own deep espresso skin. She was doing him a favor by teaching him to manage any lofty expectations.
Harpo’s belief was there was nothing Sam could do about it, “Your lot in life is predetermined. The darker you are, the less equal you are. Simple as that!” he said.
Sofia survived immeasurable racism in her life so doubted her sensitive son would carry her ballsy torch. She would live to regret not having told him everything.
During harmonious times Sam greatly admired his mother’s upright self-respect. Later he learned submission and passivity were not the only responses to a patriarchy.
Harpo on the other hand was smaller and much less assertive for a typical southern man. He was unable to control his wife and was lovingly teased by his pals at the local bar. “Now Harpo why ain’t ya doing somethin’ about the missus. Shits only gonna get worse the more you play punching bag!” They egged him on but whenever he attempted to subdue her with physical violence, he got a good licking.
“You know how many times I warded off them men Harpo?” She said, her face twisted and intimidating. He gave up soon after the millionth time she described staving them off.
“Ma, stop worrying so much. I don’t need you defending me and getting yourself into trouble!” he said, alarmed by her interference.
“But Sam I do worry. You’re a black man ain’t cha? Black men get killed every day. Black men go to jail no matter how sweet and polite they are. Back in my day there’d be things written about us square in the newspaper. We had nothing to hold onto but now there is a little bit of hope. If you need to kowtow, just do it,” Sofia advised.
“Yes Mama,” he said.
“Who knows what scientists are cooking up behind the curtain. I remember this godammed varmint doctor, invented a disease called drapetomania, sayin’ it caused slaves to run away. That they had a morbid desire to be free, by which the only cure was whipping. You need to pray boy,” Harpo said.
Praying didn’t do shit but he tried.
“Hush now. Enough of that Harpo. You still need to pick up the batch of hog jowls I ordered from Hank. I don’t want him selling ’em to someone else.” She turned back to Sam, “I know it’s wrong Sam but you gotta do everything possible to stay away from the law. They used to say, ‘by any means necessary’ well I say, ‘stay under the radar by any means necessary.’ Please Son?” she hugged him tight.
One time he overheard his parents talking in muffled voices from behind their bedroom door. The discussion turned to Sofia screaming at Harpo.
“What you telling him to bow down to whites for? You want him to appear lazy and simple like I done?” Harpo said.
“You sure don’t want him gettin’ picked up? They don’t ask questions first Harpo! You remember what the Donald’s went through in Mobile? Jayzus Beulah wadn’t ever the same after that!” Sofia hollered.
Sam was sickened. Somehow he had caused them to argue over Michael Donald again. The Donald’s were folks they knew whose son was innocently lured to a car, nabbed at gunpoint and lynched on a tree on the front lawn of a high ranking klansman.
Sam got overwhelmed thinking how everything was his fault. Otis and Rory leaving him and now his parents possibly splitting.
After their weekend together, Sam couldn’t get Eunice off his mind. It was foreign for him to feel so good but it also felt too good to be true so he was tempted to end things first.
He was on the bus to Willie’s World Flea Market, famous for its jingle that was forever stuck in your head, “We got it, you need it, it’s just like, it’s just like a, it’s just like a mini mall, you heard me, come shop, living rooms…”
The song was just as bad as having thoughts of Eunice stuck in his all day. Too bad he didn’t have a song to get her off his mind. He was losing his mind. He was addicted to love.
What would happen next? When she returned she’d be surrounded by her friends and other guys.
On drives back from camp he’d convince himself he could muster up the courage to be cocky and step out of his own shadow to become a man. By the time he reached home he’d talked himself out of it. He didn’t deserve her. That’s just my lot in life, right Pop?
The reality was, Sam choked.
On the bus he felt eyes on him. A small dog sitting at a white dudes feet a few seats ahead was looking at him. When Sam looked back the dog’s eyes darted away then back. Sam was spooked enough to feel his nerves run sending tingles to his fingers. Holy cow! What kind of frigging dog is this?
The dog had a wolf or coyote quality to him but was a proportionate miniature like windowsill figurines shrunk by magic wand. Sam wasn’t thinking about Eunice anymore but fixated on the wolf’s steady eyes, now scanning passengers one by one. He was Frank from when Sam was a boy.
It was Sunday Church service when one of the old-timers gave him advice, “Boy, you look bored outta your tree. You got imagination don’tcha?” he asked.
“This place, this church is only in the world. These people think it’s real but you don’t gotta be here. You can go anyplace, see anything using your mind. I’ll give you an example. What’s your favorite animal Son?” he asked.
“A dog,” he said, although he was afraid of some dogs.
“Well what if you had a dog or let’s say a powerful wolf who was your guide. Who got between you and harm. Say you could sorta talk to him in your mind,” he smiled.
Sam took him up on it. From then on Sam thought of the wolf he’d named Frank at Sunday Service. He’d use Frank in his mind’s eye to get through sermons. He always knew Frank’s messages weren’t coming from the preacher’s mouth, but from elsewhere like maybe the stained glass windows. Some messages gave way to Sam’s church giggles where Sofia would turn and give him an evil eye.
Sam realized the dog on the bus was Frank. His deep stare became communication. Sam thought of Pinocchio. Why think of Pinocchio now? All Sam knew was he was safe with Frank around. He had to trust everything would be okay.
What’s troubling you Sam?
He spoke to Frank in his mind, Frank I get upset when people try to screw with me or pull wool over my eyes. It seems like the world is against me. Like I have an invisible magnet pulling negativity toward me. I have vengeful thoughts and urges. I want to wreak havoc on those who treat me bad.
Sam felt lighter and better as he got things off his chest. He continued, there are mutherfuckers out there ripping each other off. Preying on each other. If I can make an offering of substance. Help me not feel cheated. If I keep quiet, can you promise to take away this awful hole.
Sam wasn’t sure if he was praying but knew he wasn’t praying to the same bearded white man at Sunday service.