1935 A Memoir

1935 A Memoir


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



She told me about Emmett Till’s death from The Afro-American, of another colored man buying the farm. She warned me against the white women on Eutaw Place; as she grew older the streets made her breathe heavily, the winter slammed against her, boys played radios all night next door, a neighbor died in the snow, she prayed for the family of Emmett Till.



Books by Sam Cornish

1935 A Memoir  / Chicory: Young Voices from the Ghetto (1969)  / Folks Like Me / Songs of Jubilee 

Generations: Poems  /  Grandmother’s Pictures  /  Sam’s Pictures / Your Hand in Mine  /   Cross a Parted Sea

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1935 A Memoir

By Sam Cornish

Sam Cornish’s 1935 is a memoir of growing up black in Baltimore during the Depression and World War II. Melding autobiography, poetry, and fiction, the author, like John Dos Passos before him, creates a collage of American experience which allows him to weave twenty years of African-American family life into the life of a nation. For Sam Cornish, a writer’s education contains the radiance and terror of history.

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1935: Tree in the Water          1

Children’s Books         75

Everlasting      99

The Fifties: Part I       111

Southern Interlude      135

The Fifties: Part II      155

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Yellow Woman in the Faded Dress

Cora: we carried her coffin from the small room at the undertaker’s, and joined other members of our little family. Cora Keyes, grandmother, was buried in some field of wild grass and neglect after a minister who barely knew her said a few words that could have applied to many other women and not to her.

On that morning of heavy traffic, a weekend, on North Avenue in Baltimore, the liquor stores taking off the iron gratings that protected them during the night, the coffee brewing in the drugstores and in small greasy spoons, the children sitting on the steps, free from school and waiting for mischief, we got into a neighbor’s car and rove to the cemetery. She was a young woman when the train was an “iron horse,” lights were lit and brought to the table, spirits still roamed the woods and dreams of the people who believed in them, Jesus came to church all over the South when those washed and cleaned in his blooded prayed with a free heart.

In some places, the homes of the whites where a telephone was a voice that came over the miles of city block and road and street and sounded like it was next door. She died with slavery in her memory, and faced the twentieth century with the words of Paul Lawrence Dunbar in her ears “They tread in the field where honour calls, their voices sound through senate halls/in majesty and power.” A poet of the people, in his life as elegant as the generation that passed in her times and as fair, and like those who recalled Booker T. Washington, she looked, young and hopeful, into the beginning of this century, now dead.

*   *   *   *   *

The Way the Lawd Intended

My mother lived a long life, and although there were no jobs for her, her eyes failing, her mind more confused than her mother’s when she approached death, she fought for life through laugher. Instead of making us sad or angry because life was not fair, she made us laugh at her and through her, a sense of the absurd, a high-school graduate earning ten dollars a week cleaning up parlors and kitchens, wrapping packages and stealing books for me.

 My aunt made herself pretty once in a while with a trip to the beauty parlor. Coming home, hair shining on a dark winter night, like a cellar full of coal, her hair still grew long and thick. She hid dollars under the rugs, in pillows, coins in stockings and in jars of rice. My mother, with her little hands, peeled potatoes and sang a little, looking natural with her hair washed and greased with Vasoline, listened to the NBC Symphony, “Sleeping Beauty,” and the “Railroad Hour.”

When she was a little girl, she would sit in a swing somewhere in a backyard in West Virginia, and thought of having a husband one day. She lived a good life, she thought, in spite of the cops below the windows, in the back rooms of grocery stores, sheltered in the doorways against the rain and the dangerous streets. She told me about Emmett Till’s death from The Afro-American, of another colored man buying the farm. She warned me against the white women on Eutaw Place; as she grew older the streets made her breathe heavily, the winter slammed against her, boys played radios all night next door, a neighbor died in the snow, she prayed for the family of Emmett Till.

*   *   *   *   *  


*   *   *   *   *

Ethel Broiled a Cat, The Meat Dripping

Negro Collage

Good Ol’ Day Ain’t Always


jazz was people and God’s hair

1943 (when Hitler wasn’t so bad and the Jews

Were “those people” in Toronto there was


Ellington Day)


they used to have pictures of Gary Cooper

as tall as the theater Frank Sinatra

was a little guy

this was the day when chicks

were women

and necktie parties were Southern


stuff was stuff,

& Stravinsky listened to Duke Ellington

Fats Waller played

at rent parties Legs Diamond

& Dutch Schultz killed

with alcohol         the        mob sometimes used


alcohol (wonder if that got my old man) this

was the day of Cab

Calloway Hidey-Ho

Lena Horne at the Capitol Theater

Sophie Tucker the last

of the red hot (white) mamas

and stockings were panty hose

stocking caps

made Negro singers



*  *   *   *   *


 Sunday Is Harlem: Street Corner Oratory

come home again

to the lindy,

the songs of Muddy



away from white man’s laws,

to the land


John Henry the poetry

of Paul Lawrence Dunbar

where the hands of Elizabeth

Cotton picks

freight train

freight train,

in the tireless modern

Negroes astonishing

Booker T. Washington

James Weldon Johnson

at the opera walking

strutting with a cane,



chasing        trim



Zora Neale Hurston,

away from

the white citizens








come home

to the church

of Mother Horn

where Jesus peeks



listens to the poems

of Frank O’Hara,

the smoky

voice of Billie Holiday

the Delta

of Muddy Waters,

to the tireless

and endless modern Negroes,

the Beat poets’

flat prose statements

lively as a Harlem

rent party,


as three black

boys taking a piss

in the backyard

of a coffeehouse

where the young poet

is saying fuck


fuck you


he admires Allen Ginsberg

and every young Negro

poet looks at his street,

his home



and the poems

of Kaddish



to his mother,

his deceased father,


come home

and the collection plate

is passed around


all afternoon,

Mother Horn

stands before

the door, come home

show Jesus

you love him,


tambourines, perhaps poems, about Negroes,

downtown misery

landlords & Jesus, the room

where you first read


Sterling Brown:

“strong men keep a coming.”


Margaret Walker:

Let a New Earth Rise

*  *   *   *   *


The Heart That Breaks

Dwight D. Eisenhower

does not wish to legislate the heart

but it is the heart that ties the fan to the



of Emmett Till plunges it deep

into the river it is the heart that cries





to the law

that rides

the Southern night

the heart that breaks

in the breast of the good men

of Tallahatchie

the heart

that writes

the letters

the thousands


in the meetings

of the white

citizen’s councils

the great


for many ears


as an unspoken



in the dark


*  *   *   *   *

Colored People Zora Neale Hurston

Would Not Like

We met in the downtown public library, prowling through volumes of The New York Times Book Review and seeking titles that would interest me, reading reviews with the same pleasure I had once gotten from Batman. I loved Edmund Wilson and Alfred Kazin and The New York Times Book Review more than lunch in the cafeteria, where I would be cutting afternoon class reading and looking around for someone to tell me I should be in school. I noticed her looking at me: two shabby Negroes in the newspaper room among the old men sitting at the tables or leaning back in the chairs with The Baltimore Sun or The Jewish Times. There was nothing said.

Each of us looked like the kind of Negro Zora Neale Hurston would not care to meet in front of white people; the type the NAACP knew existed but choose to ignore. We were beneath Rosa Parks and even the cops overlooked us. She was wearing a long coat even in springtime, beat-up clothes, runover shoes and carrying her shopping bags. It was months later that we talked a little. I was polite because my mother told me to be. I was Jack to her and she was “Miss” and it was “Yes, ma’am” and “No, ma’am.”

She told me she had published a few poems and had even had a novel published through a vanity press, but that a real publisher had expressed interest in her work. She also said that she had taught school and never married. I never asked why. Years later, when my first poems were published she congratulated me, but never showed me anything, she was working on, although the book, she said, was coming along.

*  *   *   *   *

The South Was Waiting in Baltimore

Ruth Brown

sang bad songs about her brown body but I

could see white boys hit the nigger streets

saw them running through the projects looking

for colored girls

the Fifties were marching

integrating schools

young Richard Nixon

barbers standing

in the doors of their

shops saying



at the sight

of my hair

Negro men

scratched their heads burned

their hair

to make it


like Nat

King Cole

Emmett Till died

in Mississippi his


in JET


his death a word on the streets I never

went to Mississippi

during the bus boycotts

nor sat in

for civil rights

and hamburgers

I was poor even

then my shoes were holes

held together

by threats & good luck but I read Camus

& listened to Martin

Luther King

the Muslims

in the temple


bean pie

& promising the death

of white devils

the white


that never came

in my room

the students

fucked I read

about Algeria &

found James Baldwin



some of my friends

made jokes

about Mississippi

I never rode

The Freedom Bus

but I

walked the streets

of Baltimore

visited Little Italy

the Polish


near the waterfronts

you did not

have to travel

to the Southern


it was waiting

in Baltimore

*  *   *   *   *

Simple Times

we planted

cotton lives

on three hundred acres of land

in the country black and white

we picked

cotton for our books

our clothes

one-room school

until sixth grade

then bused to a training

school (shades of Booker T.)

A Voice in the Back of the Bus



to town where the sings

said whites

and colored and read

the papers


As I read about


and in 1954 the Supreme Court

decision that


down segregation

where Rosa Parks would not give up her seat

that day when the feet

of Rosa Parks

would not walk

to the back,

and she would rise

from her seat,

something louder

than the Supreme Court


to me

I heard Dr. King

on a soul station            he was the Bible


in Montgomery

a voice in the back

of the bus

Later, whites would take their hands and sing “We Shall Overcome” and the sun would set over the burning city.

*  *   *   *   *

Source: 1935 A Memoir • Sam Cornish • Copyright © 1990 by Sam Cornish • Ploughshares Books • Emerson College • Boston, MA

posted 14 May 2006

*  *   *   *   *

Sam Cornish: Poet Laureate of Boston.

*  *   *   *   *


Sam Cornish operates as a whole person. He hasn’t chopped himself down into categories. the fullness of spirit in his poems proves he has somehow managed to survive clear and sane through the everlasting maze of babble and brainwashed-print blasting our sensibilities every moment everywhere.—Clarence Major

Sam Cornish lives in Boston, Massachusetts, where he teaches literature and writing at Emerson College, author of three books of poems, he is the former Literature Director of the Massachusetts Council on the Arts and Humanities. His book reviews have appeared frequently in the Christian Monitor and other periodicals.


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#10 – Covenant: A Thriller  by Brandon Massey

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#16 – The Future Has a Past: Stories by J. California Cooper

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#19 – Stackin’ Paper by Joy King

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#25 – I Dreamt I Was in Heaven – The Rampage of the Rufus Buck Gang by Leonce Gaiter


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#10 – John Henrik Clarke and the Power of Africana History  by Ahati N. N. Toure

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*   *   *   *   *

1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created

By Charles C. Mann

I’m a big fan of Charles Mann’s previous book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, in which he provides a sweeping and provocative examination of North and South America prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus. It’s exhaustively researched but so wonderfully written that it’s anything but exhausting to read. With his follow-up, 1493, Mann has taken it to a new, truly global level. Building on the groundbreaking work of Alfred Crosby (author of The Columbian Exchange and, I’m proud to say, a fellow Nantucketer), Mann has written nothing less than the story of our world: how a planet of what were once several autonomous continents is quickly becoming a single, “globalized” entity.

Mann not only talked to countless scientists and researchers; he visited the places he writes about, and as a consequence, the book has a marvelously wide-ranging yet personal feel as we follow Mann from one far-flung corner of the world to the next. And always, the prose is masterful. In telling the improbable story of how Spanish and Chinese cultures collided in the Philippines in the sixteenth century, he takes us to the island of Mindoro whose “southern coast consists of a number of small bays, one next to another like tooth marks in an apple.” We learn how the spread of malaria, the potato, tobacco, guano, rubber plants, and sugar cane have disrupted and convulsed the planet and will continue to do so until we are finally living on one integrated or at least close-to-integrated Earth. Whether or not the human instigators of all this remarkable change will survive the process they helped to initiate more than five hundred years ago remains, Mann suggests in this monumental and revelatory book, an open question.

*   *   *   *   *

Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America

By Melissa V. Harris-Perry

According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel.  The selfless Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.     

Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.

As for the source of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their own bodies during slavery given that they were being auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate indiscriminately.

*   *   *   *   *

The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

*   *   *   *   *

Ancient African Nations

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Negro Digest / Black World

Browse all issues

1950        1960        1965        1970        1975        1980        1985        1990        1995        2000 ____ 2005        


*   *   *   *   *

The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery /

George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

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update14 March 2012




Home  Black Arts and Black Power Figures  E Ethelbert Miller

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