Read an except from “Rachel’s Children” in Breeder and Other Stories
Certainly the house looked most unlikely when I first saw it. As we drove up a winding country road toward the summit of a hill, there was the house set back a bit on the right side of the road. It looked like a New England salt box house misplaced in the deep South. The white paint had long since greyed, and much of it had peeled off, leaving bare dry planks. But the windows were still intact, and incongruously, the front door had in its center an elaborate carving of a noonday sun. At least it looked to me like a noonday sun. The rooms inside were much better kept than the outside would indicate. The agent— what was her name?— Miss Simpson or somebody, who looked as if Mummy and Daddy were proudly smiling that their darling had gotten this nice job selling these lovely old houses. Anyway, the agent explained that the owner used the place only a few weeks in the fall for a hunting lodge, when he and his friends came to shoot deer in the woods just beyond. The house seemed basically sound, with modern plumbing and sturdy walls. If the frame was unaesthetic and the grounds overgrown with weeds and poorly landscaped, those things could be fixed. It began to feel like a good deal.
The house was younger than the rest of the estate. It had been built around the turn of the century and later renovated two or three times over. Apparently there had been another house on the premises— the “big house” in slave parlance— but Miss What’s-her-name didn’t know what had happened to it. The property was quite extensive considering the price. There were a number of crumbling out-buildings, some of which probably did date back to antebellum days. The property was ringed by woods on three sides. There was, surprisingly, a pond with lily pads and even a family of ducks. It was the pond that sold me. I bought the property.
But no, I think that the real reason I bought this house was that it appealed to my sense of history. For two centuries this was slave territory, here in the deep South, where generations of Black people toiled and suffered and somehow survived on the distant hope of freedom. That was my specialty, Black American history, but for me the research and teaching have been more than a job— they have something to do with a sense of who I am and who my sons are. Standing on earth which was once part of an actual plantation (as the bubbly little red-headed agent joyously informed me), I did feel a tug toward buying it. There seemed a sort of poetic justice in the property’s ending up in the hands of a Black woman, to be handed down to her generations. Certainly my people had earned it.
I moved south with all kinds of trepidation. My friends told me it was too soon for me to make a major decision. But Edward had been gone for more than a year, and the old life had become meaningless. I kept seeing vestiges of Edward everywhere, taunting me with what I had had and could never have again. Then, too, I was born in the South, and after upheaval, you feel a primal urge to return to your roots.
Kenneth and David, I think, were relieved to see me starting a new life without them. They had been shocked and grieved over their father’s death, and had come with their wives and children to pay their respects and offer me their love and support. (Ken and Davie, fathers!) But grown sons have their own lives, and after that first Thanksgiving in Cleveland with Kenneth’s family, and then Christmas in Los Angeles with David’s, I knew that I needed to build a life of my own, and that’s when I revived our old dream, Edward’s and mine, to go south and teach in some small Black college. BUY BREEDER AND OTHER STORIES NOW FOR ONLY $9.56.