(Although this is a true story, the names were changed to protect the privacy of the innocent.)
It was early Sunday morning in the early 1960s. She sat there calmly in my bedroom. It was partially lit by a night lite. They had not seen me when they came in. I stood quietly in the corner across the room hidden by the bunk beds. Ms. Ella sat in the chair as the police officer squatted down to talk to her.
There was no fuss, no tears as she made her admission. She did not know what was ahead of her, but she certainly knew that what was behind her had brought her to this moment.
A red bone, Ms. Ella was a very attractive woman despite the traumatic life she had led as a wife and a mother of four. Ella was married to Eat Em Up Jackson. It was an odd combination, yet as you know from the Color Purple a very common one.
Eat Em Up Jackson was a simple man who managed his money well. A man of few words, he personified the saying you can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy. A very strong man in stature he wore suspenders, along with long johns, smoked a pipe and worked on his property when he wasn’t working at the post office. Know by his co-workers as Eat Em Up Jackson for eating out of a pale, Mr. Herman also had the reputation of never finishing any project he would start on his property including a garage he was building for his car. This of course brought on a confrontation between Herman and his next door neighbor an engineering professor and his wife a public health nurse. Cited over and over again with housing code violations, the city forced him to tear down a few of the projects including the garage.
Mr. Herman could not understand how anyone could tell him what to do with his property. That also included his wife and children. Appearing to be old enough to be her father, Mr. Herman treated both she and the children like property. This is where the law was on his side, and despite the comings and goings of patrol cars, he did not relent for one moment his controlling ways that included rules that were asinine rituals from slavery. These rituals ran afoul of the 1960s quest for freedom by all black Americans.
Mr. Herman required everyone to eat when he ate. He kept a lock and chain around the refrigerator and deep freezer. If the children did not rise to eat at 5 AM in the morning, they would not be able to eat again until he came home for lunch. He would take out enough from the refrigerator in the morning for her to prepare lunch. During his lunch stop, he would take out enough for her to prepare for dinner. This was the regiment to be followed day in and day out that she would endure reluctantly. During the summers, Ms. Ella and her children would eat breakfast at our house.
Mr. Herman controlled his money and never would allow money to be spent on anything he thought to be unnecessary in life. Maybe this is why the oldest child started stealing. Always driving a Cadillac, he was a man of means, but you would not know it by the way he treated his family. When all the kids had bicycles, yoyos, hoola hoops, roller skates etc., the Jackson kids could only watch from the sidelines.
Ms. Ella fought hard to protect her children. She had even fled Mr. Herman’s bondage. Without any marketable skills other than being a pretty female, she fell prey to another man who took her off to New York, and abandoned her with the child she bore for him. Returning from New York, there was no refuge with her parents. In their eyes, Ella was a married woman and belonged with her husband and children. With no say over her life, accordance to law and custom she returned to him with her son by another man.
Ironically, Ms. Ella, a woman of color could now eat at the Woolworth’s lunch counter and she could register to vote, but she could not get this man to treat as a human being.
Between the arguing and fighting, there was another son born as a result of this union. Disappointed with the status of the older son and daughter, Mr. Herman took matters into his own hands and decided to raise this child himself. First lesson: fire will burn. One morning as they arose for breakfast, Mr. Herman took the young child over to the hot stove and planted the child’s hands on the red hot eye. After he left for work, Ms. Ella in tears brought the crying child along with the other children to our house. The women in the neighborhood came together with some sort of homemade remedy by way of a salve to cover the child’s hands and calm him down. This rubbing compound was placed on the child’s hand throughout the day for days until the hands appeared to heal. Ms. Ella life would not be the same after this day. Perhaps this is when her own fire will burn plan started to come together which led her to my bedroom on that early cold winter’s morning.
On this particular evening, Ms. Ella had packed up clothing for the children. After dinner she had the children to retire for bed. Eat Em Up Herman went to bed and was thought to be fast asleep. She got up dressed herself and the children and got them out of the house. She dossed the sleeping quarters of the house with kerosene and struck a match. With the fire a blaze, she came out of the house and was crossing the street headed towards our house. My mother and another neighbor who worked the second shift saw the blaze. At first they thought the fire place had a nice fire that was to be appreciated on this cold night. They soon knew that it was a house fire when they saw Ms. Ella with the children. They, however did not know she had set the fire in an effort to show Eat Em Up That fire will burn. The fire department was called and the neighbors west of the burning house was evacuated from their home.
Eat Um Up escaped without harm. The firemen arrived immediately and extinguished the fire. The blaze left some damage but not enough to render the property unlivable.
The preliminary investigation revealed arson. Eat Em Up without hesitation agreed and pointed the finger at his wife. Ms. Ella was interviewed in my bedroom. During this time with no fuss she revealed Mr. Herman’s fire will burn lesson. That barbaric lesson had pushed her over the edge. Ella who admitted to setting the fire decided to set Herman’s asinine self on fire. The police officer nodded his head to reflect his understanding. Perhaps thinking that she had been through enough, he was very kind to her. The law certainly was not on her side, but instead on the side of a man who appeared to be insane. The officer would not cuff her in front of her children. They walked together out of the house and Ms. Ella was placed inside of the police car and taken away.
The three children remained with their father in the same prison like atmosphere. The other child went to live with his paternal grandmother while Ms. Ella served her prison term for arson. She would lose her privilege to vote and temporarily the custody of her kids.
While in prison Eat Em Up was granted a divorce and custody of the three children.
Upon leaving prison with some marketable job skills, Ms. Ella was finally free. Ella met a nice man who stood by her financially and emotionally as she fought and won back the custody of her children. They married, bought a nice home, and she for the first time had her own a car and true freedom from Eat Em Up’s abuse.
I would love to say that they all lived happily ever after, but the scars of abuse runs deep. The oldest son ended up in prison for bank robbery, and was serving his sentence as Ms. Ella was put to rest seventeen years later. The son born outside of the marriage overdosed on drugs a few years after Ms. Ella’s passing.
Eat Em Up Jackson never remarried. As the grandson of a slave, he continued working on his property and bumping heads with code enforcement and his next door neighbors. It was not that Eat Em Up was an evil man, he was just repeating what he had been taught from his ancestors who adopted the abuse from slavery.
Today some of these abusive rituals are still practiced in the Black community. It’s time to lay these rituals to rest and stop the abuse.
Also read Michael Eric Dyson’s New York Times Opinion: Punishment or Child Abuse?