African American Lives 2 -- Hosted by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
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Aunt Helen Alabama, and somewhere "up North" 1920s Origins: Northwest Alamama On a long country walk with my visiting Aunt

A bit of backstory first: I am 38 years-old. I was adopted and raised by my maternal grandparents. I've been with them since I gasped for my first breath. I grew up in Alabama on about 8 acres of family land. Today I am a struggling writer and actress living in New York City (second career). About four years ago, my aunts (who legally, are my sisters) were visiting down home in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. We were all raised in the family home that had been built with my grandfather's bare hands more than 60 years earlier. It was particularly warm this weekend and my "favorite" Aunt and I took a mile's long walk down the road to enjoy the lazy post-church Sunday afternoon.

As we approached the end of the road, she noticed that in the overgrown brush there stood the remnants of a little red structure that had been long abandoned.

I myself had forgotten about this little building. It stood on my school bus route when i was in grade school. Between the ages of 6-10, I remember that it used to be a country store. Every warm afternoon (and there were many in Alabama) an old woman with long gray braids and very light skin used to sit on the stoop in front of this little red candy store. She appeared to me to be withdrawn and lonely. I always understood her to be the great aunt or great grandmother of some of the kids who rode my bus. They appeared to live in poverty and they were picked on.

My aunt shared with me that the old lady used to torture her brothers and sisters, and her when they were children. Back then, they would walk down the same road to this little red store for sundies and candy. That same "old woman" (who in actuality was probably in her 40s when my aunts were little) would curse at them, accuse them of stealing and make life torturous for them. They say that the woman was once the most beautiful woman in the town. In her youth, she had yellow skin and long, black, straight hair that hung down her back. She was a Maneater; directly from the pages of "I know why the Caged Bird Sings", and she had once been the mistress of aunts' grandfather.

My grandfather never talked about his father...only to mention that he was frequently absent. While his mother struggled to raise nine children (my great aunts and uncles who I had the privilege of knowing as a child). His father was a "rolling stone" he says. (Apparently, his wanderlust genes live on in my uncle.)

My great-grandfather's frequent absences were due to his extended out of town excursions with the "Maneater". They would travel together from Alabama, to North Caroline to Chicago. It was on an extended excursion in Chicago that my great grandfather ran into the wrong end of gambler's gun and he died. The legend is that the "Maneater" sent my great-grandfather's body back to Alabama to his family and she remained in Chicago for many more years -- eventually settling back in Alabama-down the road from my aunts and uncles where she tortured them for simply being the grandchildren of her dead lover.

I love this story simply because if I hadn't taken that walk with my aunt, I would have never heard this story. No one in my family talks much about ancestors and history. My family's property is quite expansive and has been in my family for generations. I don't know how we acquired it, and quite frankly, my family is more concerned with the present than the past. I tend to need to know where I come from, simply because I never knew my own father -- neither did my grandmother. And I can see how her lack of a father has affected her life. I'd like to have more closure in my life than she.

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