It was 1938, before most folks had any thoughts of war, when I started working as a ticket taker at this local Black movie house. Not a fancy one. Not one of those palace types. It used to be a silent movie theater, then Mr. McElroy got his license, bought it, and started running talkies.
Mr. McElroy is one of those light-skinned colored men. Seems like you see plenty more of them down South than you do up North. I suppose it’s because of the history of the South, the Southern story. Anyhow, people say the reason they gave Mr. McElroy his license is because they thought he was a white man. Still, there are others who say he really is a white man, just pretending to be colored. And there are folks like that, passing for colored, just like there are colored folks passing for white. I think I read a story like that somewhere, about who’s passing for whom. That Langston Hughes story.
Anyhow, that week we were running an all-colored movie. They say all-Black today or all–African American, but in those days, and when I was a youngster, they said “allcolored.” Sometimes they would say “all-Negro.” It was called The Killers, I think. Not from the Ernest Hemingway story. This was a different The Killers. I think that was the name of it. It starred Lawrence Chenault and Willor Lee Guilford. I know some Chenaults and Guilfords in this town, but I don’t think they’re any kin to those movie actors or have any movie stars in the family.
But you’ve probably heard of them, or if you haven’t heard of them, you’ve probably seen them in the movies.
I first saw Willor Lee Guilford at the Palace Theatre in Louisville, Kentucky. They’ve got two Black theaters in Louisville. The Palace and the Funky Lumber. I don’t know how they came by that name; the Funky Lumber, I mean. I’ve never been there to the Funky Lumber, but the Palace is really nice. And it does look kind of like a palace and a real tribute to movie culture. That was how they were constructing theaters in those days. That was the type of architecture, true palace-designed theaters.
Because the movie theater in those days was a fancy and fanciful thing. And people would dress up to go to the movies, unlike today.
The theater I was working in, though, wasn’t a palace, like I said. But, as for me, I like to go into any movie theater and see the likes of Willor Lee Guilford on the screen and not just Paulette Goddard, Evelyn Brent, or Pola Negri, although I like Pola Negri. And ain’t that a name for a woman? But I mean, women who look like us.
We also showed movies with Nina Mae McKinney and Mantan Moreland. Those all-colored-cast movies, that was my first time seeing so many of us on the movie screen and playing all kinds of roles and every type of role imaginable and playing the great roles, heroes and villains, gangsters and cops, cowboys and cowgirls, scientists and doctors even. Just use your imagination.
It was 1938, like I said, and I was twenty-one or just turned twenty-one. I was taking tickets and wearing those jigsaw sandals, you know, which were considered pretty darn stylish in those days, and being a youngster I could wear shoes like that. Nowadays, I have to wear shoes with a little more arch support in them.
As for me, I’m originally from Covington, Kentucky.
Actually, I’m from a little country town near Covington. But I was staying in Lexington, Kentucky, with my sister Alberta and her husband, Turk. Turk is from Zion’s Hill, Kentucky, one of those original “freetowns” that the Blacks formed after they were emancipated. The free Blacks would form their own little towns, you know, like Warthumtown and Davistown and Little Davistown and Bracktown and a lot of towns throughout the South and out west. They live on Race Street, I mean in Lexington, my sister Alberta and her husband, Turk. When I first heard the name, I thought they were saying “Raise Street.”
They don’t live in one of those shotgun houses. You know, those shotgun houses. One of those straight-back little houses that they say you can shoot a shotgun through it and the bullet goes in the front door and out the back. No, they live in one of those duplexes with a family next door. Or maybe you could call it two shotgun houses tacked together. Except the rooms were kinda catercornered and not straight-back.
It’s my sister Alberta who got me the job at the movie theater taking tickets. She took me right over to see the projector-man, not Mr. McElroy, because Mr. McElroy allowed the projector-man to hire the ticket takers; he didn’t hire them himself. So the projector-man, Mr. Halbert, a big John Henry–looking man, took one look at me and said, “She’ll do.” I thought there’d be more to getting work than that. He didn’t even ask me what my grades were in high school. He just said, “She’ll do.”
The projector-man is a tall, brown-skinned man, the color of candied yams, and looks like John Henry, like I said, or my imagination of that steel-driving man. He’s no Sidney Poitier or the handsome fellows of your generation, though. And he don’t ask for references or anything. Like I said, he don’t ask how many grades I’ve been to. He knows Alberta and Turk, and he’s looking at her like she’s somebody he’s fond of and he just looks at me and says matter-of-factly, “She’ll do.”
“She’s an honest young lady and a hard worker,” says my sister.
But he ignores her comment and does ask me to say “Ticket, please.”
I repeat it. “Ticket, please.”
No, what I really say is, “T-t-t-ticket, please?”
“Does she stutter?” he asks Alberta.
“Naw, she doesn’t stutter,” says Alberta. “She’s just nervous.”
“Say it again,” says the projector-man.
I say, “Ticket, pelase.” This time I don’t stutter. I just mispronounce the “please.”
He doesn’t comment. He just gives me another matter-of-fact look and then he says, “She’ll do.”
Then he says, “She’ll look mighty pretty taking them tickets.”
My sister Alberta says, “You don’t hire a gal for pretty.” She mutters something to herself that I don’t hear.
The projector-man hires me anyway.
Before I went to get the job as the ticket taker, Alberta took me to this beauty parlor that’s also on Race Street, because she told me it made me look too country with my hair not straightened, and I was in the city now, in one of the central cities, and a grown woman. Alberta was sitting reading Liberty Magazine while the woman doing my hair started talking about our country going to war.
“Us ain’t going to war,” said Alberta.
“Us going to war,” said the hairdresser.
The hairdresser says she knows a woman who used to be a jazz singer in Berlin until Hitler sent all the jigaboo entertainers outta Germany. I hadn’t heard the word “jigaboo” before and didn’t know anyone from our part of the world who’d been to Germany. But that hairdresser woman called every type of colored person jigaboo.
Colored Americans, Africans, Caribbeans, Asians and Indians and such. Everybody was a jigaboo who wasn’t white. And even some of the whites she referred to as jigaboos.
At first she said that woman told her it was just a rumor that Hitler was going to send all the jigaboo entertainers out of Berlin. First he banned playing jazz on the radio and then the word came down that all the jigaboo entertainers were banished from Germany.
“She’s in Switzerland now,” said the hairdresser.
“How did y’all meet?” asked Alberta.
“She was passing through our town. Had an entertainment engagement at the Lyric and was looking for someone to do her hair and they sent for me. She said I did a fine job and sometimes we correspond. She wanted me to travel with her and do her hair on the road.
“But that’s not the type of person I am. I’ve got my own shop and I prefer to be my own person.”
As for me, I’d just come from a little country town near Covington, Kentucky, and here she was talking about Switzerland and such like places and how she turned down the opportunity to travel about the world with a famous entertainer.
Then she showed us a picture of this woman, her entertainer friend. I’m expecting some high-fancy type. A glamorous type beside a Duesenberg or one of those Mercedes-Benzes like you see in the picture books and magazines, but she shows us a little brown-skinned, sweet-faced woman standing beside a bicycle. And she’s wearing knickers. Knickerbockers, I think they call them.
And she shows another picture of the woman standing beside a tall African, a Guyanese but born in London, she tells us. His eyes look like stars in his dark face. And then there’s another picture of them walking along a riverbank and there are birds in the sky behind them. I think they are lovers, but the hairdresser says those are publicity photos, and he’s some kind of jazz instrumentalist who accompanies her entertainer friend when she sings.
And they both had to settle in another country, but neither wanted to return to the States.
“She still thinks I made a mistake staying in this country when I had the opportunity to see the world.”
She greases my hair with a hairdressing with a nice fragrance like coconuts, and she’s still talking about us going to war.
“We can’t stay ostriches,” she says.
After the beauty parlor is when Alberta takes me to town and buys me some jigsaw sandals and a new beige and yellow suit with padded shoulders, the kind in style in those days, the kind that Paulette Goddard used to wear. No, not a zoot suit. It was the men who wore the zoot suits and that was in forty-something, the Black and Latin men. You’ve heard about those zoot-suit wars?
When I came back from ticket taking, I could hear them, the couple in the duplex next door. Then I hear footsteps out the back door. No, it’s not Turk and Alberta; I know it’s the couple next door.
I had started to stay in that little country town, but it’s Alberta who sent for me. I didn’t come to the city just on my own. She started telling me about the new colored theater and that there might be a job for me there. She told me there wasn’t anything for me in that little country town but to work in some white folks’ kitchen. I told her that there were plenty of white folks’ kitchens in Lexington to work in. But she told me they were hiring at a new Black theater in town, a new colored theater.
Alberta and Turk both have factory jobs, working in a tobacco factory. They both work on the line. I don’t know what working on the line means. But Alberta says they both work on the line. And they have also worked in the fields, stripping tobacco. But they prefer to work on the line. She didn’t want me to work there, though, because she says I’m a more delicate person.
Now I’m sitting here waiting while Alberta is having her hair done. I’m reading Liberty Magazine, reading about Andy Hardy and Freddie Bartholomew and the adventures of the Notorious Sophie Lang.
“Us going to war,” says the hairdresser.
“No us ain’t,” insists my sister Alberta.
Excerpted from Butter: Novellas, Stories, and Fragments by Gayl Jones. Copyright 2023. Excerpted with permission by Beacon Press.