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Born in Houston, Texas, Gwendoline Y. Fortune grew up hearing stories of her "mixed blood" heritage: a free-born black great-grandfather, Native Americans, Scot-Irishmen, a cowboy grandfather, a Confederate great-grandfather and relatives who were missionaries in pre-World War II China. She went to college at the age of fifteen and has been writing ever since. Selections from Growing Up Nigger Rich placed in the top twelve entries of the annual Pirate's Alley Faulkner Society competition and earned second place in the National Black Writers' Conference Awards. She lives in Saxapahaw, North Carolina.
Growing Up Nigger Rich: A Novel (2002)
Family Lines (2003)
Growing Up Nigger Rich
A red and blue, long-bed pickup truck came up behind and skidded into my bumper. I cut my motor, opened the door, and jumped from my seat to check for damage. I wasn't hurt, but my car was two months old, and I loved its newness. Dammit, the light was red. Why didn't that idiot see it?
I glanced at the tiny scrape on my bumper. The pickup was right-angled to my car, its hood pointed left, just scant inches between the two vehicles. It was drizzling. Down from the cab came a pair of scuffed, tan, work boots topped by hairy, muscular, white legs and starched khaki pants hardly creased behind the knees.
"Sorry ma'am. My foot kindly slipped off the brake. You hurt?" A round head, short-cropped red hair and mustache, freckles, a thick neck slopping into narrow, fleshy shoulders followed the pants and checkered shirt, sleeves rolled up.
That accent, that Carolina drawl, reached out to me like a barbecue flame sizzles when meat spatters grease. Displeasure tightened my stomach, crawled upward, and tingled my spine.
"No, I'm okay. You barely touched me." I saw concern in the young fellow's eyes, which stopped my fear."You sure, lady? Lord, I hope so." The young man's face whitened, bringing his freckles to mole-like prominence. His hands shook when he pulled his driver's license from his rear pocket. I had swallowed my temper a zillion times before a face like his, a white face-especially a white male face-in a pickup truck.
"Well, let's see. How are you? Is your truck damaged?" I asked.
"No'um, it's pretty sturdy. It's my daddy's truck. I'm doing a delivery for him. He's got insurance. Don't you worry none."
Billy Joe Taylor, age 20, and I, Gayla Tyner, age 47, exchanged insurance and telephone numbers.
"If you have a problem, just give me a call, you hear?" Young Mr. Taylor seemed unaware of the caution stirred by his Carolina twang.
"I will. Thank you." I smiled over clenched teeth, my eyes not quite at ease. A Jane Austen quote squeezed into my head. 'One does not love a place the less for having suffered in it.' Maybe.
Back in the car I grabbed a handful of tissues, wiped the rain from my face, and completed my turn.
Yeah Gayla, I thought, here you are, back in the part of the world that you hate. Holding in my anger was a lesson I learned in Carolton, South Carolina. So, what in Hell's Bells was I doing back here, "down-home," "big-foot country," after all the jokes I'd heard about the South-where I was born. I had felt split in two even after I left. But down here, even if I was right, I was wrong-black and wrong.
I didn't grow up always happy in a town where I was, alternately, a precious child-because I was the daughter of Dr. J. C. Hughes-and teased or ignored-because I was "colored." Billy Joe Taylor didn't look or speak as if he were born into class privilege. I was. It was a dubious honor.
The last cloud moved beyond the sun. Two-storied old, red, gray, or buff buildings were faded Technicolor. Old white men in summer wash pants, pastel short-sleeved shirts, and suspenders walked hesitantly from under protective store entrances. I glimpsed young black men. I sensed something different. Young black men walked with their heads up, and some older ones who wore hats kept them on when they passed white women.
My decision to come "back home" to spend my sabbatical from teaching in Michigan brought on a growing malaise.