Sammy is a white widow who grew up in the racist south of the 1950s. After the death of her husband, she began a journey of healing from her history. Learning to see the realities of gender, race and class inequality allowed her to claim her own deeper, spiritual power and pass these lessons on to younger generations of women.
As a young girl, I loved the rhythm of the train going by my house and imagined this train as a woman. I could hear and feel the power of her steam. She started blowing her horn with long blows one at a time and then repeated again. She was letting our small town know she was coming through.
I have blown through my life like this.
I could hear the whistle singing, echoing off the longleaf pines and magnolia trees and telling me, “Get out of the way! I’m coming through. I’ve got a full load and I’m on my way to Wilmington.”
I could feel her wheels working hard, loaded with the lumber and coal that she had picked up at my Daddy’s saw mill beside the tracks.
As she passed, the intensity would be swelling inside me, knowing this was the moment that she was beside me, and then as the sound passed, she was saying goodbye and there was a moment of sadness, this powerful self leaving me.
I wanted to have such power.
As a child I took it personally. I didn’t want to hear the power fading into the night, the whistle saying goodbye. I so much wanted to play with her, even better, travel with her. I would say, “Goodbye, goodbye, see you again,” as the heaviness of the sound was gently getting softer.
To this day, I love the sound of a train. As a child to experience this wonderful sound was also scary to me because there were times I thought she was coming through the house – the power I felt from her.
I imagined seeing them shoveling coal into her belly to make her stronger and move faster – coal gave her life.
At 1:00 sharp in the morning, she would start blowing her whistle. I remember the shaking of the back bedrooms when my lamp would almost dance off the nightstand. There were times that I would grab that lamp, looking with amazement each time at the power she would bring inside my home.
The railroad track was also a path for people of color to travel on going back-and-forth to work in town and to my father’s saw mill.
The train had freedom that the people of the town didn’t.
Black people didn’t walk freely in Roseboro. There was an air of not being welcomed. I remember this distinctly as a child. It would have been odd to see a black person roaming the white streets.
I didn’t understand this.
I traveled on the tracks also. I wanted to be free like the train. My parents were unaware of this – unless someone would see me and report back to them.
Then I’d catch Holy Hell.
I would walk trying to balance myself one foot in front of the other, arm stretched out for balance. It was always a test to see how far I could go without falling. And going west would take me to “colored town” to visit our maid Linnie.
I loved going there where everybody was so friendly and happy to see me. I always felt welcomed. I thought I was special. They knew my name.
I was unaware at the time that most of them worked for my father at the sawmill. All I knew was that they welcomed me. They were glad to see me.
I didn’t realize our skin colors were dividing us.
Black men used the train tracks for traveling back and forth to their jobs in town. On the Roseboro streets, the only black people I saw were female maids walking home from cleaning white families’ homes.
I saw the ladies frequently every day. I knew all their names: Laura Anne, Mini Ruth, Ginnie, Linnie, Mae. Sometimes I would join them for a short walk. We just chitchatted about our day and I walked with them to the edge of town.
We were raised to say “colored” by our mothers, but yet our fathers would say the n-word. So eventually we grew up to say that word – just like Daddy – not understanding the hurt and pain that word would cause when we said it.
When she was passing, the train moved through “colored town,” then it would be coming into the white section where we lived, and then it would go through downtown past the depot, and on its way out of Roseboro there was Cottontown where the cotton gin was. She’d stop there and load up on cotton and then make her way to Wilmington to the market.
She was more free than any of us.
It wasn’t until I was a widow that I started seeing my family for what it was: five generations of wealthy landowners from Maine, South Carolina, and the North Carolina town where I was born.
My grandfather started a small bank in this small town with the loving help of his wife’s family, money which was inherited from her widowed father who was a very successful stockbroker.
Through the Depression, when farmers were losing their farms, my grandfather would buy up the farms because he owned the bank. The first Monday of every month, people would gather on courthouse steps to hear the auctioneer sell farms and equipment in hopes of a deal. My grandfather bought these tobacco and cotton farms even before they went to auction.
This is one story told in many of our family stories, and for most of my life, I didn’t question it.
But then I began to wonder what happened to the farmers. Did they stay on and run their farms for a salary?
Or did the poor farmers lose everything, including their dignity?
Class was like a robber that jumped off the freedom train and kicked in the front door.
I want to take class and throw him out the window and send him down the tracks.
I think of how many great writers, painters, and inventors came from homes with dirt floors and flimsy windows, the sunlight or the darkness of night coming through their walls.
They swept those dirt floors just as proudly as a rich woman hires a maid to sweep her floors.
I was told from a young age that we were the big fish family in a small pond. When you’re in this pond, you don’t see it or really feel it for what it is because you live it every day and love it – this applies to inequalities of class, or race, or gender.
I married and divorced and moved and married again, and each time the pond changed.
After my divorce, I did not have anything except the clothes on my back and a car that I bought for $200 at a flea market with a case of oil in the back because I had to stop every twenty miles and put oil in this beauty.
But though I had been stripped, I had never felt so free and scared in my life. Suddenly, former friends treated me like I didn’t exist. They liked me when I was riding high, but when I wasn’t, no one would even look at me. I felt ashamed and unwanted, but it taught me to see through the illusion of class.
I think about this when I see “poor white trash” cheering at the Trump rallies on television. The upper middle-class look down upon them, so they want someone else to look down upon in their small pond.
I see the lines wearing hard on the men’s and women’s faces from years of physical work and labor, their muscles and tendons being worn out, but yet they get up the next day and march through their cotton fields or to their shift at Wal-Mart.
And the truth is that they are in the pond with poor black people.
As hard as it was for poor white families to get ahead, in the country where I was born, it was unheard of for a black family to own land. They usually worked the land for their landlord – which, if you ask me, sounds like slavery but was considered reality in the pond.
If a black family did own farmland, they would hand it down with pride to the next generation for them to take care of their families.
It was not until I was a widow, really on my own, that I escaped the pond and saw all of this clearly.
Recently, and ironically, I went from my home in Columbia back to my family’s land in North Carolina while escaping from Hurricane Matthew. There I saw how the waters fell, and then rose, on everyone equally.
As my grandsons played in the pouring rain, I heard no sound from those train tracks. The storm had stopped the train, and we finally had to stay where we were and let the waters rise. As the dams broke and the rivers flooded, I saw my history for what it was – small ponds with small fish – pretending that the inequality didn’t exist.
I want to reach into my television and say this to the people I see at the Trump rallies:
I know you want a change, but this is not your savior. This is just another bully who thinks he’s better than you and will lie to your face while he takes your farm and your freedom. Don’t give in to it. Stay home. Vote for someone else. Do what you want, but know that the robber baron will kick your door down the first chance he gets. Meet me by the tracks where my grandsons and I will gather together with you — rich and poor, farmers and workers, white and black — and take the train to the change we want on this land in an equal, and American, way.
*Editors note: As a non-profit, Auntie Bellum cannot endorse candidates, but we can and do support writers with conviction and personal stories to tell.