“My People”

Billy Graham, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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“My People”

by James H. Clinton
Southern Cultures, Vol. 12, No. 1: Spring 2006

"My people rolled over twice in a Pontiac one dark night, but survived. . ."

Who are your people, she asked, when she heard
that I too am from Arkansas. Who are my people?

My people came in through New Orleans, one up
from steerage, through New York and changed
their names or kept their names. My people farmed
as tenants, tried to save up enough to get a little
something of their own. My people slept in howling
distance of panthers, circled wagons on the way
to Oklahoma, died of typhus in the same Oklahoma.
My people huddled on Ozark farms to ride out
the Depression. My people caught trains, rode buses
up and down hillbilly highways. My people’s car
broke down, ran into the ditch. The plough rusted
and the mule died; teeth rotted and frames shrank.
My people wrote letters, suffered injustices, joined
the Masons and the Eastern Star.

My people owned no slaves, but would have.
My people earned it and lost it or gave it away.
My people came back from the war, but didn’t talk
about it. My people listened to the Opry, the Hayride.
My people loved Billy Graham, laughed at Oral Roberts,
went to the revival, were baptized, were sprinkled.
My people sought redemption and kept the liquor
in the meat cooler at the back of the store. My people
played baseball and hated the Yankees. My people
were Brooklyn, that’s Brooklyn damn it, Dodger fans.
My people knew Thomson would hit that home run,
that Ike would beat Adlai, but voted Adlai anyway.
My people waited until next year, played basketball
in dirt-floor gyms, mumbletypeg in the pine grove,
went swimming in the bay with the muddy beach.

My people rolled over twice in a Pontiac one dark
night, but survived. My people died young and lived
forever. My people stacked the chairs after the church
social, paid their taxes, skipped a year of grade school.
My people married young and wrong; my people stayed
married. My people sat on the front porch and watched
the stars, talked politics with the neighbors, fed birds,
hung laundry on the line, walked through the woods
to see relatives. My people knew black gum from white
oak, my people burned leaves in the backyard, washed
the car on Sunday. My people opened grocery stores
in California, picked apples in Washington; my people
came back. My people had muscular dystrophy, heart
disease. My people got tired of picking cotton, moved
to Little Rock and lived below Markham. My people rode
the bus down Seventh Street to Johnson, then walked
the rest of the way home. My people got their haircut
and their drugs at Stift Station, shopped at the bargain
basement at Pfeifer’s, bought groceries from Johnny
and Lois. My people were people your people would not
have known. My people heard of your almighty people,
and didn’t care much one way or the other.

Editor’s note: “My People” previously appeared in Arkansas Review: A Journal of Delta Studies.