Redwood Court


The following is from DéLana R. A. Dameron’s Redwood Court. Dameron is an artist whose primary medium is storytelling. She is a graduate of New York University’s MFA program in poetry and holds a BA degree in history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her poetry collections include, How God Ends Us and Weary Kingdom. Dameron is also the founder of Saloma Acres, an equestrian and cultural space in her hometown in South Carolina, where she resides.

Stories Everyone Knows and Tells

My grandpa Teeta says I am the second and last daughter of Rhina, who is the only daughter of Weesie, who was the first daughter of Lady, who is the secret daughter of Big Sis, who was born to Sarah, who came from Esra, the adopted daugh­ter of Ruth (who adopted her because Esra was a slave and was sold without her mama, but the story was Esra’s mama had thir­teen children depending on who asked and depending on if you counted those unborn or born dead). Ruth had five children, three blood and two like Esra. Teeta says when we go back that far it’s hard to know who or what is what. That far back and it’s not a matter of blood relations so much as a matter of who brought up who? Who protected who? Who survived with who?

I am writing all of this down.

I tell him I have to draw a diagram for my history project and bring an artifact, one that traces my history all the way back to whatever country we emigrated from to come live in the United States. I know we didn’t emigrate like that, that is, of our own free will, but I ask him if he knows what countries at least we go back to.

“Baby, the way I see it, I don’t know if us Negroes get to an­swer that question in this life,” he said, pulling the cigarette from the corner of his mouth. I feel a way about his use of “Negroes,” because I thought the right term was “African American.” That’s what I’ve been taught to use. Teeta says ain’t nothing African about him but maybe his skin. The way they see him. To me, Negro sounds too close to the N-Word, but he says it’s clearer to him to define himself this way. Folks saying “Black” these days and meaning . . . not always American. He takes a sip of Sanka coffee I fixed just right. Just like he taught me: hot water, two sugars to three scoops of the bitter powder.

“How far back do you know we go?” I ask.

Jenny, who knows she’s Irish American, showed the class the family Bible where her blood relatives were documented back to the 1600s. Tucker, Dutch American, brought his grandmother’s doll with tiny wooden shoes, holding flowers that looked like tea­cups on the stems—tulips. Next week, I’m supposed to present whatever I bring to represent the country of my origin. I had asked Daddy to help me first, but he won’t no real help. Told me to just make a cowboy doll since he knows for sure he was born in Texas—what his birth certificate says. “That country, if they ask, is America,” he goes. I roll my eyes at his answer, but I also understand that it’s the only answer he has. I came to Teeta to see what he knows.

“We go back to Georgia for your grandma Weesie’s side, I guess.”

“And for you?”

“Sometimes I like to think we just emerged from the earth, like Adam. How we ’spose to go back.”

“Don’t you want to know more? Where we come from? Where we going?” I ask him. He squints at me how he does when he knows I’ll be on a list of questions he can’t answer. Teeta shrugs and says he don’t know if he wants to know more.

“What I know about who on this side of the ocean suffered what they did so that I could live the life I got is good enough for me. Waving somebody else’s flag ain’t gone give me more pur­pose than the one I waved in the wars I fought.” He pushes him­self up a bit on the couch, but doesn’t sit upright fully. “How I see it, I either wallow in the unknowns that I ain’t never gone know, or I rest knowing my peoples over in Green Sea, South Carolina, is made of salt water and collards and oak-smoked ham.”

What am I made of ? That’s not quite the question for the project, but it has arrived on my heart. How do I know what I am made of ? I ask Teeta if we have anything written down anywhere— or if there was something I could bring in to satisfy the impossible-for-me assignment? What does it feel like to have a thing or things, like our own stories and books and whatever, to hold our histories that future generations can reference?

“Teeta, how do you think the future generations will know the lives we’ve lived?”

He sucks so hard on his cigarette you’d think he was pulling tobacco through it to the back of his throat.

“Baby, that’s your assignment, I guess. You the future genera­tion,” he says. He leans his head back over the arm of the sofa, like how I watched a baby bird out my window calling for his mama, and puffs out Os into the still air of the den. “Whoever come after you, if that’s your plan, that’s the future, and whoever after that—that, too, the future.”

“But Teeta, who will tell them who we are?”

I’m thinking about how Missy has a book she could bring to class that is as big as the Britannicas in Uncle Junior’s room. Ms. Hunter showed us a book that was published and is sitting in the main branch library where her great-great-grandfather and all of the things—and people— he owned is listed.

What about us?

I didn’t realize my voice raised so high at the end of my ques­tion. Daddy’s cowboy-doll compromise meant I was coming to class saying I was just an American, nothing more. Nothing like my classmates who were American but also descendants of folks who chose to leave their known countries to be here. Teeta didn’t seem to understand me when I told him bringing in a handmade doll wasn’t the same as having something that people who lived years ago had touched and saved and put away and moved from country to country, house to house to house, until Timmy could bring it to class, and by that point—after all those generations and years and hands— it would be an artifact. That folks already had historical artifacts to bring in from home, that no one was making a thing to pack into their backpack.

He shrugged again.

“Someone made whatever it is them kids is branging in at some point to be passed down.”

I am worried if I don’t pass this assignment I’ll ruin my perfect grade in history and—like how everyone warns— my chance at college, ’cause it’ll be on my permanent record, and if I’m to be the first off to college, I have to pass every. Single. Class.

But this hurdle—the ocean between what’s asked of me and what I can answer.

*

“Baby, sure, you got this project. Do it. Make a family tree branch or whatever. The lines I just told you about. I trust what­ever you submit will be fine like it always is. But I guess I’m say­ing, maybe there’s a bigger something to go after that won’t never be finished—that you’ll make and make again and make some more, since you asking all these questions. You know, you sit at our feet all these hours and days, hearing us tell our tales. You have all these stories inside you—that’s what we have to pass on—all the stories everyone in our family knows and all the sto­ries everyone in our family tells. You have the stories you’ve heard and the ones you’ve yet to hear. The ones you’ll live to tell some­one else. That’s a gift that gives and gives and gives. You get to make it into something for tomorrow. You write ’em in your books and show everyone who we are.”

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Excerpted from Redwood Court. Copyright © 202 by DéLana R. A. Dameron. Used by permission of The Dial Press an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.



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