“Start that over, Tiny Bit,” says Grandmama as she waves an unsnapped green bean at my laptop. “And turn it up for me.”
My finger is still hovering over the touchpad when a wave of crisp, staccato horns crests and crashes from the speakers, receding into violins cascading
into a churning drumroll before that voice smooths the way and invites us to meander a piece down a lazy river.
This is a man’s world,
This is a man’s world
eases into a kitchen full of women and curls my toes before I know what hit me.
The holidays have arrived, bringing the kind of warmth that soaks our family like one of Aunt Sadie’s overnight rum cakes. Hands chop and knead and stir as conversation flows free until glances travel on currents through the kitchen, arresting innuendoed talk before someone asks, how old are you again, Tiny Bit? We wear the steam of vinegary pot liquor from the collards on our skin, mingled with the earthy perfume of potatoes boiling nearby. Whenever Mama bastes the turkey, Grandmama slides her brandy my way for a quick, guilty sip. And now, this song comes on, tempting us all to wander with Grandmama and Mr. James Brown into a memory that brings a smile to her lips capable of summoning summertime at Christmastime.
“That’s my song!” Grandmama says with a voice as sweet as an August peach and velvety as the fuzz. She shoots up straight, popping fingers instead of green beans, and swaying in her chair like a seventy-something-year-old woman with two good hips. This winding rhythm is deeply embedded in my DNA, I know, because it makes me want to do everything she’s doing right now. But if anyone in my family, anyone, catches me dancing like she’s moving, my parents would ground me for a month.
So, I sit still, watching her shoulders, her hips, her neck, all move like grass in the river breeze, while the movie of a different time and place plays behind her eyelids. Just a peek of teeth shows through her lips, that smile, the same way Mama curls the edges of her mouth and narrows her eyes. Grandmama uses all her velvet to call my grandfather from the other room.
Grandmama moves like a woman with a story to tell. Just not the story I’ve been trying to coax from her for my project. And when Grandpop leans a shoulder on the doorframe to watch the goings on, she gives him a shimmy and a wink. He reads her up, then, down, with his teeth bitten into his bottom lip.
“Oh, there you go,” pours out of his mouth in his sweet Alabama molasses. “Your grandmama woulda run off with James Brown had I been a lesser man, you know,” he says, puffing his chest out to give his potbelly some company.
“He ain’t lyin,” she promises. “But for your Grandpop, you’d be lookin’ at Mrs. James Brown.”
“Grandmama! I don’t wanna hear that kinda talk,” I chuckle alone as her grandmama smirk assures me that, no, he’s not lying. Grandpop sways his head back and forth to her same rhythm. So, she shows him a few more of her teeth, inviting him to make his way past Mama fixing the potato salad, past Cousin Deborah making the punch, past Aunt Marjorie frowning over her cake, and past Aunt Sarah piling more sandwiches on a plate.
This is a man’s world,
But it wouldn’t be nothin’, nothin’, without a woman or a girl.
An amen chorus rings out in the kitchen, with Mama, my aunties, and girl cousins all urging Mr. Brown to “tell it.”
As the piano,
as the bass,
as the snare,
as the strings,
as the horns,
as that voice,
wind around the kitchen, my grandpop makes his way over and extends her a hand, and I see the two of them young again. Without her gray hair, his potbelly, or the wrinkles in the corners of their eyes. But the idea of their youth brings my mind back to The Struggle, back to my assignment. Back to the conversation that Grandmama is dodging.
“This music was supposed to put you in the mood to talk about the sixties, Grandmama. But here you are, body rolling to James Brown,” I tease, earning a raised eyebrow reminder from Mama not to forget myself.
But teasing, pouting, whining—whatever—my grandparents are deaf to it all because they’ve heard it all. So, she snorts and rolls her eyes in my face as Grandpop pulls her away from the table.
This old-school funk station had one job: to ease her into the right frame of mind for talking about civil rights. The Struggle, and all they went through. Instead, Grandmama leaves me staring at a mountain of unsnapped green beans as Grandpop leads her in a grown-folks’ two-step around the kitchen.
Mama snickers over her shoulder while she checks the bird, and Uncle Tracey calls out to Grandpop to come back to the spades table.
“I’m busy,” he yells back with both eyes fixed on my grandmama. “Go on ahead and have Christopher sit in for me.”
Loud groaning and desperate pleas fill the air for Grandpop to return to the family room as my cousin—who has waited at the fringes of the game all day—jumps into Grandpop’s seat. But Grandpop is deaf to their complaining, too, because, like he already told them. He’s busy.
“See what you started?” Mama taunts, her own voice a little more molasses than peach fuzz when she teases. “I told you not to turn that music on. It was only a matter of time.”
“Mmm-hmm,” agrees the kitchen as work continues around my grandparents. Bronze faces with Grandpop’s eyes concentrate on the mixing, the basting, the baking. Hands with Grandmama’s long, slender fingers, knead, chop, and snap. Even the licks of steam rising from the pots and the low murmurs of gossip harmonize with the winding rhythm coming through the speakers.
“I was just trying to get Grandmama in the mood to help me with my project,” I tell Mama. “This interview’ll push me up to an ‘A’ in Social Studies.”
But Mr. Brown has other plans for my grandparents now. They’re hugged together, whispering to each other as they swish over the tile. He says something in her ear, and she taps his chest with her hand. She says something back, and he smiles wide, nods, and kisses her forehead. By the look of it, my extra credit is the last thing on their minds.
But then, out of nowhere, Grandpop changes his mind.
“We could tell her the story from 1963,” he suggests just as Mama sits to finish Grandmama’s share of the beans. “That’s a good one.”
I shove green bean mountain at Mama to make room for my laptop on the table as Grandpop casually offers up memories of one of the most seminal years in The Movement. Pieces of their lives have been revealed as scars over the years, keloids on their souls and skins meant to remind me of the past as they call me their future. Stories full of winces and downturned eyes, and the gasping question of what it’s all for every time someone turns on the news.
“You think, Stanley? I don’t know,” Grandmama hesitates.
“She’s old enough,” he says. The air hums with the buzz of his thick accent. “Ain’t you, Tiny Bit? What’re you, sixteen now?”
I sit up straight, fingers hovering over my home keys, as Grandmama keeps hedging.
“See? She’s sixteen. Near grown,” he says. “Shoot, it’s as old as you were. C’mon, darlin’,” he says, laying it on thick now. “1963. What’chu think?”
They’re still two-stepping slow, hugged close together. Grandmama looks me over with a little smile, rolls her eyes, and sucks her teeth.
“Okay,” she shrugs. “If y’all think she can handle it.” Grandmama moves to part with Grandpop, but he holds her tight against him.
“Who said you gotta go anywhere, now?” he smirks. “Unless you suddenly can’t dance and talk at the same time. And we both know that ain’t true,” he slides in.
Watching them makes me wonder if boys like my grandpop even exist anymore. How can they? Grandpop has that old-school, straight-out-of-The-Struggle confidence about him. The kind of swagger they make movies about nowadays, where everyone wears black berets while planning protests in the back rooms of rent parties. But Grandmama’s cool about it, all the same. If my grandpop is the sun, then my grandmama is the moon. She is the one pulling the tides.
“I was fifteen in 1963, thank you very much. Not sixteen, Stanley,” she corrects, breathing her way into the story. Between the wandering cadence still coming through the speaker, and the way her slowing voice eases the clock back, she drops us all onto the creaky, wood slats of their Montgomery porch. She smiles right in Grandpop’s face, telling us the tale in a way that feels like eavesdropping. But their words, together, invite me into this place. So, as I type, I wander with them, and every listening ear, back to 1963.
“I was a sophomore in high school and competing with Ellen Desjardin for the top slot in my class, yes I was. Your grandpop was a senior who had exhausted all his options for lady friends in the junior and senior classes. He had a little band back then—”
“—Stanley and the Steamers!” he interrupts and inflates his chest again. She sucks her teeth for about ten straight seconds or so.
“They were a pitiful little collection of ragtag boys, is what I know,” Grandmama says, shaking her head as chuckles ripple around the kitchen. Grandpop rears his head back with some pleading eyes as a smile cracks across his face.
“C’mon now. It ain’t gotta be all that,” he says with a thickened drawl meant to charm.
“Mmm-hmm,” she assures us. “Each boy had less talent than the last. Every set they played was a train wreck. But they performed at all the local dances, so you couldn’t avoid them if you wanted to.”
She smiles at him and continues, no wound to Grandpop’s pride in sight.
“Anyway, one night, me and my sister Betsy went out to one of these dances, and your grandpop called himself makin’ eyes at me from the stage,” she pauses, allowing my fingers to catch up. “You get all that?” she asks. I nod.
“Yes, ma’am. What happened next?”
“So, my sister, rest her soul, was absolutely scandalized that he was eyeballin’ me. She was also a senior and knew your grandpop’s reputation with the ladies. ‘Stanley Thomas’d better put that eyeball back in his head before I pluck it out of him,’ she told me. Which is exactly what she was sayin’ when she caught me throwin’ eyes back his way. That was it for her. She snatched my hand and dragged me from the school gymnasium.”
My water glass ripples to the beat of my keyboard as I transcribe the story they share. Mama shoots side glances my way, but I pretend not to feel her eyes burning a hole in my head as Grandmama continues.
“So, Betsy yanked me down the hallway, and just before we left out the school, your grandpop came burstin’ through the gymnasium door. ‘Wait!’ he called out after us. She’s hollerin’ at me to move my feet, wanted to get out as soon as possible, you understand. But I planted myself like the oldest cypress in all of Alabama. She wasn’t movin’ me anywhere.”
Grandmama nods her head with pride and keeps going, giggling every time she mimics Grandpop’s baritone, or Grandaunt Betsy’s husky voice. She smiles as she tells the story, a change from the usual cast-off glances and frowns during these tellings. Now, there is light on her face, in her eyes, as she tells the tale of open defiance against her older sister. I have never heard this story before, and I feel the need to be cautious with my smile as I wait for the brutality. The dogs, the clubs, the hanging ropes they know too well. But there is light on her face, in her eyes that makes me smile. I am mindful of my smile, want to guard it against the inevitable horrors that will fall out of their mouths. But there is light on her face, in her eyes. I want to warn her of an ending unfamiliar, but too familiar. But there is light on her face and in her eyes. She continues:
“‘Move your feet, girl,’ Betsy tried orderin’ me, tuggin’ my arm near out the socket. ‘He’s bad news.’ By now, he’s runnin’ down the hallway, arms just pumpin’, legs just flyin’, like he’s tryin’ out for the 1964 Summer Olympics. ‘Hey! Wait!’ he called out again. And he had somethin’ in his hands.”
She pauses again, and while my fingers catch up, I notice everyone watching around the kitchen. This story is its own dance inside of my grandparents’ two-step. Little smirks of recognition cross the faces of my aunties, girl cousins, and Mama, just half-seconds before Grandmama tells the funny parts. But don’t they get it? This story is new to me, and even I know how it ends.
“What’d he have in his hands?” I ask.
“Her scarf,” Grandpop says, giving Grandmama a little peck on the cheek.
“My scarf,” she nods, raising her shoulders as his lips click against her. She gets back to the story, but her cheeks shine deep crimson now and her long fingers fan air to her face. “I’d dropped it when Betsy first snatched me, and he stopped in the middle of the song to dash out like a madman and return it to me. ‘You…dropped…this…’” she imitates his panting.
“C’mon, darlin’. I didn’t do all that, now,” Grandpop objects, trying to charm her into a more flattering truth.
“You tellin’ it, or am I? Anyway, she grabbed it from him. She didn’t even want me touchin’ anything comin’ out his hand. ‘I know you, Stanley Thomas,’ she said through her teeth with the evilest of eyes, and her lip all curled up. ‘I know you, and you ain’t no good! You stay away from my sister.’ Now Betsy, rest her soul, was my best friend in the world. But we were oil and water, too. You’d have thought he put a root on my scarf, the way she carried on. It was just what I needed to hear. After all that, I had to get to know him better.”
Grandpop smiles wide when she pauses, and my fingers catch up with the story again. Mama smirks and wags a bean at my laptop, telling me to press ‘repeat.’ To continue the dance, the story, to wander through time to the night they first met. But I am also privately guessing, now, about what possibly happened when he did nothing but return her scarf.
“My sister kept on meddlin’, tryin’ to tell my daddy that your grandpop shouldn’t be allowed to come around,” Grandmama continues. “She actually called you a scoundrel and a skirt-chaser,” she reminds Grandpop, and his face falls flat like he still hasn’t forgiven my Grandaunt Betsy. “But your grandpop came to call anyway, askin’ to speak to my daddy. So, my father sat him down on the couch in the parlor, which was unusual. He normally sat with boys comin’ to call outside on the porch, you understand. But he invited your grandpop to sit on my mama’s good couch.”
With the way my grandparents wind into the buildup of this story, my minimum word count is complete before we even reach the injustice. Her face, her eyes still shine at Grandpop as his baritone leads us all into the rest of the tale.
“So, her father—who, not too long after this, became as close as my own—sits in a chair clear across the room from me. He’s a big old man, and I’m hardly a buck-seventy soakin’ wet. I’m a lover, not a fighter, you understand,” he winks at her.
“Oh, Stanley, please.” She rolls her eyes, but Grandmama could have skipped her rouge the way Grandpop makes her blush. Their skin glistens with the same perspiration of boiling pots and blazing ovens as the rest of us, but I see that my grandparents adore each other the way new couples do. He glances at her, she shy-smiles at him, and he nods and floats his eyebrows like he dares her to be an object of his desire. But my grandparents have been married since time began, well after they should have graduated from playful love. Love should be about visiting grandchildren, and signing birthday cards in two names with one hand, and pulling blankets over feet of eyes resting in the recliner.
But Grandpop’s story continues.
“Anyway, he’s got his foot crossed over his knee, starin’ at me. Talkin’ about what Betsy said about me and wonderin’ why I can’t handle somebody my own age. Now, I came correct to call on your grandmama. I asked to speak to him as a man, brought flowers, spit-shined my shoes and everything. I even skipped out on a gig and had the band mad with me.”
“You skipped a gig,” Grandmama interrupts again, sucking her teeth. “That’s news to me.”
“I did, you know I did!”
Grandpop narrows his eyes, and I can tell the hard part is near.
“Now, just as I’m fixin’ to tell your great-grandfather about how well I intend to treat her, he tells me, ‘Hold that thought, son,’ gets up, and walks over to me. He leans in close, with his big, barrel chest hoverin’ over my ear. I’m thinkin’ he’s about to knock me out or choke me or something. I lean to my right, and he slides his hands right underneath the cushion I’m sittin’ on. I lean as far as I can go, and you know what happened?” I shake my head with fingers hovering the keyboard.
“He pulled his deer rifle from the couch. ‘Just wanted to make sure the safety was on,’ he tells me. ‘These things go off at the damndest times,’ he tells me. Had me sittin’ on top of his deer rifle the whole time, yes he did. A loaded deer rifle.”
Grandpop breaks the dam and screams of laughter flood the kitchen. Grandmama tugs at her collar, trying to catch the tears streaming from her eyes. I finish typing open-mouthed, with my last few keystrokes more spaced out than the rest. This laughter is celebration that lingers long after the sounds disappear. Waiting for a word, or even a memory plucked from a lick of steam, to reignite at any moment. But after a minute or two, things finally settle down, and I’m ready for the end.
This is a man’s world, this is a man’s world,
But it wouldn’t be nothin’, nothin’, without a woman or a girl.
“So, what happened next?” I ask. He shrugs, locking a warm eye with Grandmama. And the way they move together, it’s clear his world wouldn’t be nothing without his girl.
“Your great-grandfather allowed me to come around, and we started goin’ together. I never sat on that couch again, I’ll tell you that much. And I still hold her a little tighter every time James Brown comes on the radio,” he winks. “But I went off to college, she joined me a few years later, we married, and started a family.”
The song ribbons around the kitchen, through other sounds, and the silence that lies beneath. Greens bubble on the stove. My grandparents’ feet swish over the tile. Someone yells at my cousin Christopher for talking over the spades table. But my mother, my aunties, and girl cousins are stalk-still. No one says a word. Peelers stop peeling, knives stop chopping, and Mama even stops snapping beans. I look for some clue about what’s happening around me and try to catch Mama’s eye. But her lips disappear behind her teeth as her cheeks puff and her head turns to avert my gaze. All she gives me is a single tear rolling down her cheek.
“So?” says Grandpop.
“What happened in 1963?” I ask. “You skipped that part.”
“No, we didn’t,” says Grandpop. “That’s the story. The end,” he says.
“But what about the civil rights part? The Struggle?”
“You think hasslin’ with Betsy and sittin’ on a man’s deer rifle ain’t enough of a struggle?” he asks to show out for the masses.
His words reignite the laughter, and the room explodes all over again. Grandmama buries her face in his shoulder, and her entire body shudders against his. My own mother doubles over in her chair, clutching her stomach. Everyone in the kitchen has a good laugh at my expense.
“What’s the matter, Tiny Bit?” Grandpop asks with a satisfied grin. “You were expectin’ somethin’ bloody and chaotic?”
“Maybe not bloody and chaotic, but something about how you struggled during The Movement.”
“Anybody else in your class bein’ asked to report on their grandparents’ doings during that time?” Grandmama asks.
“Not that I know of.”
“Even your other skinfolks?”
“There aren’t any others in my class.”
The music continues weaving its way through the space, but my grandparents both deflate in the steamy air. The light in their eyes, in their steps, disappears. Grandmama shoos my mother from her seat, busying her hands again with the beans. Grandpop pulls a chair, and a sandwich, from the other end of the table to sit next to us.
“Do you ever wonder what your classmates’ grandparents were doin’?” Grandpop asks.
“I never really thought to ask, to be honest.”
Mr. Brown’s voice rings and rasps over the rhythm, haunting me now, as this question sinks in. A pin deflates the good humor in the room, as sighs whoosh throughout the kitchen. Grandmama shakes her head and concentrates on the beans silently, locking her stories away again behind pursed lips.
“When you look at pictures from the Movement,” Grandpop starts slowly, “do you see Black folks turnin’ hoses, dogs, spitting, on ourselves?”
He takes a deep breath, exhaling with an open mouth. And he looks at me through narrowed eyes, like he’s trying to decide how old I really am. Whether I’m ready to be fully wounded by his scars.
“Do you ever see photos of Black folks standing around while one of their skinfolks hangs from a tree?” he asks.
“Stanley,” Grandmama scolds as a book passed around by my fourth-grade teacher years before haunts me anew. The kids in my class huddled around my desk, gawking, pointing, ewwing, laughing at picture after picture of men, women, and children swinging with the leaves and the river breezes. Beside the dead, children eat candy, women lay picnics, and men smile next to corpses like trophies. All celebrating the brutality with clear eyes towards the lens. Through the haze of tears trapped in my vision, I recognized the ones hanging who looked like me. And the ones smiling, picnicking, posing, who did not.
“No, sir,” I say as a lump burns my throat, reviving the confusion of those pictures to my eyes. What I was seeing. And why. Grandmama runs her hand up and down my back, as that day, as the ghostly mist of those images, spreads from where I buried them to the front of my mind.
“Why do folks only wanna hear from us? Why just make us keep rehashin’ all of it? Way I see it, wasn’t just two, three white folks actin’ a fool back then. So, if your teacher wants to know so bad what was goin’ on? Get an accountin’ of everyone’s doings? Let him start with his own people. Now that’s a report I’d like to see,” he laughs softly, but his chuckle still rumbles the table. “‘Cause some folks are still out here, reaping the benefits from the dirt they sowed.”
“Mmm-hmm, amen,” agrees the kitchen.
My cursor taunts me now, waiting for the words that my grandparents refuse to say. It even blinks in time with the music, reminding me of every project, report, assignment, just like this. It urges me to push past the creeping regret of Black history presentations I’ve done,
past the discomfort in reacting for an entire community in mourning
past the repeated lies told to teachers, other students, friends, coaches, parents, guidance counselors, about feeling, about being,
To say my words without fear, to use my voice as I choose, to exist without consequence.
Grandmama offers me her handkerchief to wipe these memories from my face, and when I look to thank her, hurt rims her own eyes red. Her teeth peek through her smile again, though, connecting our memories, hers and mine, with the threads of our family web. Remembering is funny that way, as a song new to my ears courses through my blood and curls my toes all the same. Her stories, their history, is mine.
“Of all the stories, why’d you tell me that one? About the dance?” I ask softly.
“‘Cause that started all this,” says Grandpop, waving his hand around at all the faces in the kitchen. Every single one of us, somehow, a mirror of my grandparents. As somebody’s parent. As somebody’s child.
“We lived our lives, too, is what we’re tellin’ you. Your grandpop gave me my first beer, and took me to the drive-in movies,” says Grandmama.
“And I married her the second she’d have me,” he says. “Yeah, we marched and all that in Montgomery, and I’m proud to say we did. But trust me when I tell you this, Tiny Bit,” he says, punching his index finger into the table, “it wasn’t marchin’ with your grandmama that gave me seven children.” He touches Grandmama’s arm, and she huffs, giving him a playful tap on the shoulder as those teeth return to her smile.
“Daddy,” Mama gasps, and everybody around us snorts at her being reliably prude. But my grandparents ignore her. They’re looking at each other again, so far down that lazy river that none of us has any hope of catching up.
I see them now, the day they first met. Their faces, clear and young to my eye. The world around them was hostile and cold like the blizzard threatening outside, but he also played music, she danced, and he returned her scarf. Now they sit, hand-in-hand, with eyes only for each other, as the cursor continues its blinking. Although my instinct is to guard my grandparents and their story, their lives demand to be recorded.
Just as the song starts again, I look through my work one final time before closing my laptop.
And the piano,
and the bass,
“What happened to the music?” Grandpop asks. The kitchen grumbles and groans all around as I apologize and flip the lid back up.
Then the snare,
and the strings,
and the horns,
and that voice,
wind through the kitchen again.
“Ask after your teacher’s folks next time you see him,” Grandpop says again as they get back up to dance. “‘Cause that is a report I’d like to see.”
IT'S A MAN'S MAN'S MAN'S WORLD Words and Music by JAMES BROWN and BETTY NEWSOME Copyright © 1966 (Renewed) DYNATONE PUBLISHING COMPANY and WARNER-TAMERLANE PUBLISHING CORP