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Growing up Black in Jim Crow Texas

“The land, at least, was giving

[An excerpt from a memoir, From the Depths of Darkness, by Dawud Al-Malik, (with James O’Barr), Mud Flat Shorts (mostly Fiction), Mud Flat Press, 2022]

I was born David Washington Riggins—what I came to think of as my slave name—in November of 1946. Growing up the eleventh of fourteen children, I learned early in life about struggling for a place in the sibling order of things. In spite of the rivalry, we kids always fought for each other.

Our parents, who were the grandchildren of slaves, owned about twenty acres of land in Giddings, Texas. They grew all sorts of things: corn, peanuts, watermelons, pumpkins, peas, greens, tomatoes, okra, cabbage, carrots and cotton. They also kept chickens and hogs, and two horses, which Pop used to plow the fields.

The house we were raised in was a typical shotgun style, with three bedrooms, a kitchen and a front room that served as a bedroom at night. I remember getting splinters in my feet from the wooden floor as well as splinters in my butt, which Mama had to prick out with a needle. When it rained, the constant pounding of raindrops on the tin roof at night would put me to sleep.

We had no electricity or indoor plumbing. At night, we used kerosene lamps for light. There were two wood stoves, one in the front room for heat and one in the kitchen for cooking. Pop rigged the well out front with a faucet, and we kids brought water inside by the bucket. Saturday night was bath night. During the hot summer months, the grass in the front yard turned brown and the dirt turned black. We didn’t find out until after we moved to Seattle that there was oil deep under that ground, and it was rising to the surface.

Pop and Mama grew up together. Born around 1905, Pop quit school after the 4th grade to help at home. Short and powerful, with close-cropped hair, he was a stern man, but at the same time, patient and gentle, and he loved teasing us. Clean-shaven except for a well-trimmed mustache, Pop was prone to ingrown whiskers. He’d promise us kids a penny if we’d pull them out with tweezers. I never saw a penny, but I loved pulling out those ingrown whiskers because it gave me extra time with him, which I didn’t get real often.

Pop worked hard from before dawn until after dusk, planting crops, fixing farm machinery, repairing the property, maintaining the barn and adding on to the house.

As far back as I can remember, Mama was my best friend. Born in 1910, she was able to go to school through the 7th grade. Education was important to her, and she read a lot, particularly magazines and the newspaper. Part Native American, with straight black hair and a regal manner, she was a striking woman.

Like Pop, Mama was always busy, spending her days canning, making preserves, cooking, and helping Pop in the fields. I can still see Mama sorting and mending our endless dirty laundry, then washing it in an old hand-crank washer. She was an usher at church, and a member of the Order of the Eastern Star, a branch of the Freemasons for women. Outgoing and caring, everybody loved her. Mama told the truth whether you liked it or not; she spoke her mind and didn’t bite her tongue.

At the time, segregation and Jim Crow laws prevailed in Texas, as they did throughout the South. For Black folks, it was the bad old days of separate and not at all equal. Growing up surrounded by family, I was largely shielded from white oppression except when we went to town. Wise to the way things were, Pop minded his own business. He was a proud man, quiet and dignified.

The land, at least, was giving. Mostly it took care of us, but we always needed money to make ends meet. In the summer, our entire extended family traveled to Rosenberg, Texas, to work for Mr. Mormon, a white cotton farmer. This was before mechanical harvesting became common, and the cotton was picked by hand.

Mr. Mormon and his family lived in the big house, and he put us up in small shacks, like the old-time slave quarters. This was my first real encounter with white people. Mr. Mormon seemed nice at first, and he had a son named Billy, who was five or six, about my age. My parents warned me about playing with Billy, but they reluctantly let me go outside when he came over.

I couldn’t understand what they were worried about, but I eventually learned that they just wanted all of us to be safe and to survive. From long and bitter experience, they assumed that we had no choice but to learn to “stay in our lane,” which meant toeing the color line. It also meant being smart about who we trusted. Just because someone smiled and acted nice didn’t mean we could be any less cautious.

They had especially good reasons at that time to be afraid for us. In addition to Texas segregation laws severely limiting our choices, the Ku Klux Klan and other violent white hate groups were getting more active because of the Supreme Court decision that outlawed school segregation along with the rise of a growing civil rights movement. But we needed the money, so we spent the entire summer on that old plantation, all of us picking and pulling cotton and working together.

Mud Flat Shorts (mostly Fiction), is available at Orca Books, Browsers Bookstore, Last Word Books and from Amazon.


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