SOLITARY © 2019 by Albert Woodfox. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.
I was born in the “Negro” wing of Charity Hospital in New Orleans, the day after Mardi Gras, February 19, 1947. My mom, Ruby Edwards, was 17. My father was gone. He left her, she told me, because she was from the wrong side of the tracks. We lived in New Orleans until I was five and my mom fell in love with a man named James B. Mable, a chef in the U.S. Navy. He was the first and only man I ever called Daddy. They got married and had four more children, a girl and three boys.
We moved six or seven times to different naval bases during those years. Daddy’s job was to feed the crew of whatever ship he was assigned to. He used to take me onto the ships on weekends when Navy personnel were allowed to bring family. I remember walking to the edge of an aircraft carrier to see the water and he grabbed me by the back of my shirt so I wouldn’t be blown away by strong winds.
I was a rebellious child. When I was seven or eight, I challenged my mom to a wrestling match. “I can beat you,” I told her. “If I win you have to wear a dress all day,” she said. It was the worst punishment I could think of but I agreed. She pinned me in a few seconds. I don’t know where she got the dress but I wore it. At least I was keeping my word, she said. “A man ain’t nothing without his word,” she told me. I heard that my whole childhood.
For a while my mom was my world. Proud, determined, and beautiful, she took care of us. She couldn’t read or write but she could add and subtract and was good with money; she could squeeze a penny until it screamed. Growing up in the Jim Crow South she had a lot of practice surviving on very little. When Daddy was on leave we stayed at his parents’ small farm where he had grown up in La Grange, North Carolina. There, my grandparents grew watermelons, cabbage, corn, tobacco, and sweet potatoes. Behind the house was a chicken coop and farther back a forest where we picked wild strawberries. My grandmother loved to fish but was afraid of boats. I was the only one she trusted to row her out into the river, which, my mom being from Louisiana, we called a bayou.
My grandmother showed me how to clean and cook the fish we caught. She taught me how to farm. I fed the chickens and worked in the fields. I learned to drive a team of mules at a very early age. When we “cropped tobacca” I drove a slender buggy led by a mule that fit between rows of tobacco. The sides of the buggy were made of cut-up burlap sacks, nailed to posts that stuck up from each corner of the wagon. The women in the field broke off the leaves and laid them down flat in the buggy. When the buggy was full I drove it to the curing barn where women tied and hung the tobacco on sticks that were then placed inside the barn on racks. Once the barn was full the heat was turned on and the tobacco would be cured before being shipped and sold to tobacco factories. When I was nine or ten I’d hitchhike back and forth to a job at a tobacco factory in Winston-Salem, 170 miles each way. Sometimes the drivers would make conversation, other times they wouldn’t. My job was to help roll the tobacco barrels to a scale. A lot of kids my age worked there.
When I was 11, everything changed. Daddy was forced by the Navy to retire after 25 years and we moved to La Grange full-time. He went from being a master chief petty officer, the highest noncommissioned rank you can achieve in the Navy, to being a black man living on a farm in North Carolina. Without the responsibility and respect he was given in the Navy, he lost his self-esteem. He started drinking and took his frustration and rage out on my mom. Daddy never hit me or my brothers or sister. He beat my mom. When he hit my mom, she screamed and tried to fight back, but she was a small woman. He overpowered her with his size and strength. We never knew when he was going to explode in anger and bitterness. Nothing warned us in advance how he would react on any given day so we lived in constant confusion and fear. One time he beat my mom so badly his sisters came around and told her they were afraid for her life. If she didn’t leave, they said, he might kill her. My mom didn’t want to go but some part of her knew if she stayed with Daddy she was in danger. Sooner or later the violence he used against her might be used against her children. She made a secret plan with Daddy’s sisters to take us kids and run away. Because of her limited education and experience the only place she felt safe was in New Orleans, where she was born and raised. So, New Orleans was her destination.
On the day Mama planned for us to go, Daddy was getting ready to leave the house when my five-year-old sister, Violetta, said she wanted to go with him. My little brother James, who was three, said he wanted to go too. Mama spoke to Violetta: “Why don’t you stay home, Vi. I think you should stay.” Violetta was Daddy’s favorite child and he said she could go with him. James could come too. We all watched them walk out the door. Mama turned to my aunties and said, “I ain’t going. Not without my children.” They told her in the strongest words possible that she had to leave because her life, and the lives of her children, depended on it. They promised they’d send Vi and James along behind us with someone. It was the hardest decision my mom ever made. She took me; my brother Haywood, who was two; and the baby, Michael, not a year yet, to the Greyhound bus station. We boarded the bus and rode all the way to New Orleans without Vi and James. Mama cried off and on the whole way. She was filled with anger, fear, and remorse because she felt as though she’d abandoned two of her children, even though she knew she’d see them in a matter of days or weeks. She never imagined that years would pass before she would see them again. Had she known, our lives would have been different, because she never would have left.
At the bus station in New Orleans, Mama called her brother on a pay phone. Uncle Joe came to get us with Aunt Gussie. They drove us to a house she was renting. I’ll never forget the address, 918 North Villere Street, in the Sixth Ward. Inside, Aunt Gussie led us down a long hallway to two small rooms in the back. One of the rooms had a fireplace and became our makeshift kitchen. Mama put a bunk bed in there for me and my brothers. She took the other room as her bedroom. In order to use the toilet, we had to walk out the front door and around the house to the backyard. It was located in a little room attached behind the house. There was a bathtub in a small room that separated Aunt Gussie’s kitchen from our two rooms, but my mom always made us take baths in a big metal tub in our kitchen. Mama warmed up water on the little stove and poured it in the tub for us. There was a slop jar in the corner we used as a temporary toilet at night. We put pine oil in it to keep down the odor. One of our chores each morning was to empty the slop jar.
The city of New Orleans is made up of wards, and we lived in the Sixth Ward, also called the Treme. It was a black neighborhood in those days, a mix of working-class and poor people. We lived in the poor section. Claiborne Avenue was the busiest street in the Treme because most of the businesses in the Sixth Ward were located there. It was our Canal Street, the main business area of New Orleans. Small black-owned businesses like grocery stores, hair salons, dress shops, laundromats, barbershops, bakeries, and bars lined Claiborne Ave. The middle of Claiborne was covered in grass and trees and called “neutral ground.” It was a favorite gathering place for people in the neighborhood during Mardi Gras season and other major holidays. Everyone set up barbecue pits and picnics on neutral ground. After school, my friends and I played tackle football there in the shade of the trees that lined Claiborne.
When we weren’t playing on neutral ground we played stickball in the street. If it wasn’t too hot, children played barefoot, saving their shoes for school. Almost all the houses in the Sixth Ward were the same, we called them “shotgun houses.” If you stood at the front door and fired a shotgun, the ball shot would go straight out the back door. Our house was a double shotgun. Every house on my street had a small porch or steps in the front where people gathered. Telephone poles were on either side of the street with sagging, crisscrossing wires between them. There wasn’t a tall building in sight, except for a church steeple here and there and Joseph A. Craig Elementary School. Every house had a side alley lined by a fence. My friends and I jumped the fences to take shortcuts from street to street. Later we jumped fences running from the police.