Sunday, March 7, 2010

D'Ann Fago: The Other Side


D'Ann grew up in a world where segregation was the norm, and yet it did not seem normal to her. Her memoir-in-progress shows the Jim Crow south through the eyes of a sensitive and often lonely child, one who identified with society's marginalized people. Coal miners, sharecroppers, the very old, the very poor—such people appear over and over again in her work. She was still a girl when she picked up her sketchpad and headed into unfamiliar parts of Lexington, Kentucky, to study prostitutes and drifters.

D'Ann's childhood included many long train rides between Lexington and cities throughout the South—trips that reconnected her, temporarily, with her parents and older sister, who lived a nomadic existence during the hard years of the Depression. The photographer Marion Post Wolcott captured the solitary figure above in Mississippi in 1939. In the places D'Ann visited, such scenes would have been common. In the following passage, I see so clearly the defiant little person who would become the artist, writer, and friend I know today:

One time my grandmother and I were going to Arkansas to visit my parents in Calico Rock, and I became aware of the large “Colored” and “White” signs outside waiting rooms and restrooms. It was that way on the train, too. There was a colored section and a white section. And I’d very often sit in the colored section, because it didn’t matter, and actually the blacks I spoke to were more fun to talk to than the rest of the people.

It was a long trip on a day coach—very bumpy and kinda dirty. We had to stop frequently and change trains. We got off in some little hick town and I wanted to find a place for my grandmother, who was in her eighties, to sit down and rest. We went into the first waiting room, which I clearly saw was marked “Colored,” but I didn’t give a hoot. We were settling in and relaxing before the next train came through. All of a sudden, I was aware of these eyes going right through me. I could actually feel those blooming eyes. I looked up and the station agent was beckoning to me from his barred window. I went over to him, and he said, “You’re in the wrong room.” (continued)

I said, “What do you mean?”

He pointed to the sign and said, “There’s only colored in this room.”

“Listen,” I said, “my grandmother is well into her eighties and she is very tired, and I’m not going to bother with a sign like that. I don’t care where we sit. I just want her to relax.”

And he said, “Where are you from? You must be from the East.”

“No, I’m from Kentucky.”

“I don’t understand your thinking,” he said, and it went on from there a little bit. But I refused to budge, so he sort of relaxed and let it go.

That was memorable to me, because the experience was so raw and this station agent’s demeanor was so mean. He had no human sympathy whatsoever with the situation.

I was born in 1917. I lived in a big old house in Lexington with my grandparents. Lexington was a very striated town: Either you belonged in a certain area or you didn’t. There were the people who had been in Lexington forever, and then there were the new people. That area of Kentucky had bluegrass and limestone, which meant that horses had stronger bones. Better and better breeds of trotters and then racehorses began to appear on the scene, and this in turn drew a great deal of money to town.
My grandparents’ house was on a plot of four or five acres. In back of the house was a clay tennis court that my mother had used. By the time I came along it had grown up in weeds, but it had been quite a drawing card at one time.

On the other side of the fence was Darky Town, as it was called: all these little houses and lots of people. I used to stand in our back yard and listen—at sunset, particularly—to the people on the other side of the fence. Our house was very quiet, and they sounded like they were having such a wonderful time. Every night things would come alive. You’d hear a voice coming up above the other voices, someone coming through with a wagon hawking tamales—I couldn’t always understand what they were selling. It was too far away to really hear. But it was like, what a joyous place to be! I just wanted to be there more than anything. It was like magic to me.
My grandparents had a black guy who worked in the kitchen—actually, he did everything. Charlie was his name. He took care of the house, and he also took care of me. He practically raised me. If I said a swear word, he would be on my case very quickly: “You don’t talk like that.” “Why?” “Because you don’t, that’s all.” He taught me morals.

When we were in the dining room, you could hear Charlie singing in the kitchen. He had a beautiful contralto voice, and as he did the dishes and cleaned up, he would sing hymns. He ended up as a bishop in the Kentucky Mountains. I never got to hear him preach, which I would have loved to do.

When my parents would arrive from wherever they had been with my older sister, it was exciting to see them, but I was scared because I knew at the end of the visit my father would say, “Okay, get your things. You’re going with us.” And that was just the fear of God. It hung over the whole visit.

My parents had a little farm outside of Lexington. My mother, who was a very romantic soul, named it Hollyhocks. It was a lovely little house with a barn, and a nice old horse that I got to ride. I would be there off and on, when my father said, “Get your things, we’re going.”

Charlie would always help me with the hiding part. He was a dear, he really was. When I didn’t know how long I was going to have to hide, then he would bring me something to eat. There was a big mirror in our dining room, the size almost of one wall. Between the mirror and the wall was a space, and that was a good hiding spot. There were other spots, but my father would invariably find me and then would come a whipping, and I would have to go.

When I was about six, there were headlines in the paper about a lynching somewhere in Kentucky. I was pretty excited about it—it was like a Wild West show had come to town. I’d read about lynchings farther south, but there had been only one in the Lexington area, and I had very little idea of the ramifications. I was just excited by the excitement. My grandfather was seldom stern, and when I showed him this exciting thing in the newspaper he got angry with me, which was disturbing because I adored him. He explained what a terrible thing it was, and he set me straight, in a good way.

My grandfather was a loving, mellow, tenderhearted kind of man. He came from an old farming family in the area, and he used to tell me stories when I couldn’t sleep at night. He was an elder in the Presbyterian church, and chairman of the school board—he had a silver cup at the end of his thirty-some-odd-year reign over the school system. He was considered a very fair person. When the schools were desegregated, everybody expected everybody else to be totally opposed to it. But because my grandfather was a Republican and a very principled guy, he couldn’t honestly justify that, even though he used the word “nigger,” which was just common language in that area. We all used it without any hesitation, because anything else would have seemed odd.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This blog is a wonderful way to get to know our contemporaries! D'Ann is a remarkable person. I love reading about her life, looking at her art, and just appreciating her in many ways. Thank you, Sara, for sharing.