The Great Migration
"...paid for at a price which literally staggers humanity. Imperialism, the exploitation of colored labor throughout the world, thrives upon the approval of the United States, and the United States gives that approval because of the South." —W. E. B. Du Bois The third question in Spanish class is: De donde eres tu? She'd come for brand-new words: las flores rojas, el puente. To have words like crema de leche on her tongue at least for a few weeks before tasting the bitter syllables of their history. How to begin with the young woman next to her asking: Where? Young enough to be her daughter but— The place where you were one of five half-naked children playing in the dirt under a porch. There was a yellow dog. The place where I was a white girl sitting in a dusty car with the window rolled down, looking at you. No word to share. That place. That place. She says, Del Sur. The girl replies: We moved up here when I was eight. Until last year every dream I had happened there. I take my daughter down to see my aunts. She's four. Back home she can take her shoes off. The ground's not strewn with glass, like here. The dirt's clean, at least. Do you have folks, back home? From class to home she tries out her lessons. At the bus stop bench, she sat next to a man who hated spring, its thunderhead clouds, its green- leafed rain. At home, he said, there was only sun. In the north in Chile, rain was somewhere else, not falling everywhere like sadness here. He'd not been back in twenty years. There was him, and the man who hated the cold and the brick factory and the one room with fifteen people he couldn't remember. He began to walk back to Guatemala. Police picked him up in Texas. No soles to the bottom of his shoes. Police stopped him in Mexico. Three thousand miles in four months. He'd done it before. His compass was walk south, toward warmth, you come to home before the war. At home there was a dirt track by the paved road, worn down through pink sundrops and fox grass, an emphatic sentence written by people walking north to work. Books called it The Great Migration, but people are not birds. They have in common only flight. Now, in the city night, they dream they're caught in a cloud of dust and grit, looking down at land being shoveled, furrowed, or burned by huge machines. In the daylight they stand in line at the post office and buy money orders to send home. Beatrice is there to collect a package from her mother. This time she's sent onions grown in sandy soil. She says they are sweeter than apples, that one will feed a crowd, that they have no bitterness. At home their neighbor said: I can tell any county I'm in just by smelling the dirt. Beatrice puts aside five onion globes shining yellow as lamplight, like the old kerosene lamp they set in the kitchen for emergencies. She'll give them to the woman who sits by her in Spanish class, the one young as a daughter, the one she'd never have known at home.
From Walking Back Up Depot Street, copyright © 1999 by Minnie Bruce Pratt. Reprinted by permission of the author. All rights reserved.