Well-a poor Lazarus poor as I When he died he had a home on high ...
The rich man died and lived so well When he died he had a home in hell
... You better get a home in that Rock, don't you see? -Negro
Until Miss Debbie, I'd never spoke to no white woman before. Just
answered a few questions, maybe-it wadn't really speakin. And to
me, even that was mighty risky since the last time I was fool enough to
open my mouth to a white woman, I wound up half-dead and nearly blind.
I was maybe fifteen, sixteen years old, walkin down the red dirt road
that passed by the front of the cotton plantation where I lived in Red
River Parish, Louisiana. The plantation was big and flat, like a whole
lotta farms put together with a bayou snakin all through it. Cypress
trees squatted like spiders in the water, which was the color of pale
green apples. There was a lotta different fields on that spread, maybe a
hundred, two hundred acres each, lined off with hardwood trees, mostly
Wadn't too many trees right by the road, though, so when I was walkin
that day on my way back from my auntie's house-she was my grandma's
sister on my daddy's side-I was right out in the open. Purty soon, I
seen this white lady standin by her car, a blue Ford, 'bout a 1950, '51
model, somethin like that. She was standin there in her hat and her
skirt, like maybe she'd been to town. Looked to me like she was tryin to
figure out how to fix a flat tire. So I stopped.
"You need some help, ma'am?"
"Yes, thank you," she said, lookin purty grateful to tell you the truth.
"I really do."
I asked her did she have a jack, she said she did, and that was all we
Well, 'bout the time I got the tire fixed, here come three white boys
ridin outta the woods on bay horses. They'd been huntin, I think, and
they come trottin up and didn't see me 'cause they was in the road and I
was ducked down fixin the tire on the other side of the car. Red dust
from the horses' tracks floated up over me. First, I got still, thinkin
I'd wait for em to go on by. Then I decided I didn't want em to think I
was hidin, so I started to stand up. Right then, one of em asked the
white lady did she need any help.
"I reckon not!" a redheaded fella with big teeth said when he spotted
me. "She's got a nigger helpin her!"
Another one, dark-haired and kinda weasel-lookin, put one hand on his
saddle horn and pushed back his hat with the other. "Boy, what you doin'
botherin this nice lady?"
He wadn't nothin but a boy hisself, maybe eighteen, nineteen years old.
I didn't say nothin, just looked at him.
"What you lookin' at, boy?" he said and spat in the dirt.
The other two just laughed. The white lady didn't say nothin, just
looked down at her shoes. 'Cept for the horses chufflin, things got
quiet. Like the yella spell before a cyclone. Then the boy closest to me
slung a grass rope around my neck, like he was ropin a calf. He jerked
it tight, cuttin my breath. The noose poked into my neck like burrs, and
fear crawled up through my legs into my belly.
I caught a look at all three of them boys, and I remember thinkin none
of em was much older'n me. But their eyes was flat and mean.
"We gon' teach you a lesson about botherin white ladies," said the one
holdin the rope. That was the last thing them boys said to me.
I don't like to talk much 'bout what happened next, `cause I ain't
lookin for no pity party. That's just how things was in Louisiana in
those days. Mississippi, too, I reckon, since a coupla years later,
folks started tellin the story about a young colored fella named Emmett
Till who got beat till you couldn't tell who he was no more. He'd
whistled at a white woman, and some other good ole boys-seemed like them
woods was full of em-didn't like that one iota. They beat that boy till
one a' his eyeballs fell out, then tied a cotton-gin fan around his neck
and throwed him off a bridge into the Tallahatchie River. Folks says if
you was to walk across that bridge today, you could still hear that
drowned young man cryin out from the water.
There was lots of Emmett Tills, only most of em didn't make the news.
Folks says the bayou in Red River Parish is full to its pea-green brim
with the splintery bones of colored folks that white men done fed to the
gators for covetin their women, or maybe just lookin cross-eyed. Wadn't
like it happened ever day. But the chance of it, the threat of it, hung
over the cotton fields like a ghost.
I worked them fields for nearly thirty years, like a slave, even though
slavery had supposably ended when my grandma was just a girl. I had a
shack I didn't own, two pairs a' overalls I got on credit, a hog, and a
outhouse. I worked them fields, plantin and plowin and pickin and givin
all the cotton to the Man that owned the land, all without no paycheck.
I didn't even know what a paycheck was.
It might be hard for you to imagine, but I worked like that while the
seasons rolled by from the time I was a little bitty boy, all the way
past the time that president named Kennedy got shot dead in Dallas.
All them years, there was a freight train that used to roll through Red
River Parish on some tracks right out there by Highway 1. Ever day, I'd
hear it whistle and moan, and I used to imagine it callin out about the
places it could take me ... like New York City or Detroit, where I heard
a colored man could get paid, or California, where I heard nearly
everbody that breathed was stackin up paper money like flapjacks. One
day, I just got tired a' bein poor. So I walked out to Highway 1, waited
for that train to slow down some, and jumped on it. I didn't get off
till the doors opened up again, which happened to be in Fort Worth,
Texas. Now when a black man who can't read, can't write, can't figger,
and don't know how to work nothin but cotton comes to the big city, he
don't have too many of what white folks call "career opportunities."
That's how come I wound up sleepin on the streets.
I ain't gon' sugarcoat it: The streets'll turn a man nasty. And I had
been nasty, homeless, in scrapes with the law, in Angola prison, and
homeless again for a lotta years by the time I met Miss Debbie. I want
to tell you this about her: She was the skinniest, nosiest, pushiest
woman I had ever met, black or white.
She was so pushy, I couldn't keep her from finding out my name was
Denver. She investigated till she found it out on her own. For a long
time, I tried to stay completely outta her way. But after a while, Miss
Debbie got me to talkin 'bout things I don't like to talk about and
tellin things I ain't never told nobody-even about them three boys with
the rope. Some of them's the things I'm fixin to tell you.
Excerpted from "Same Kind of Different As Me" by Ron Hall. Copyright © 2008 by Ron Hall. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.