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Alvin Ailey
A Life in Dance
By Jennifer Dunning

Chapter One: Busy as Soon as He Was Born

The sky is open and endless in Southeast Texas. Green-brown fields and dirt roads run straight out to the brim of the horizon and over, the green punctuated by grazing cows, the small groves of trees smudges against the blue. Man-made cattle ponds, or "sinks" in Texas talk, curve up toward the sky they reflect like the palms of hands. Towns are the barest clusters of buildings, with names like Red Ranger, or Joe Lee, or Zabcikville, where Czech and Bohemian farmers settled.

And always the trains, crisscrossing the countryside, keeping company with the horses, buggies, cars and trucks as they travel along country roads. The Santa Fe and Southern Pacific announce their approach with a distant cry of warning at countless dirt-road crossings along their route. The cry grows louder and more urgent, then suddenly diminishes, spent in a whir of steel bodies headed somewhere else--followed by the eyes of silent children playing by the tracks, heard by the drinkers in the Dew Drop Inns along the way, sensed by the Sunday worshipers calling out their love for God and their hope for salvation in throbbing, exalted song.

The world into which Alvin Ailey was born was, and to some extent still is, one of harsh and arbitrary extremes. Given a certain kind of attention, a black child could flourish there despite adversity, yet never quite feel he belonged in the larger world. In the 1930s, when Alvin was a child, public facilities were segregated, and "colored" facilities were almost always humiliatingly inferior to what whites could expect. Decades later, Alvin's mother could still see and smell the toilets and eating areas for the colored that were hidden at the back of bus-stop cafes along routes from one Texas town to another, as much out of view of white eyes as possible. She remembered, too, the stop where the stench of nearby white urinals filled the air around the table where blacks were sent to eat.

Blacks and whites lived in mostly peaceful coexistence in the small segregated rural towns where Alvin lived for brief periods of his earliest years. A 1929 directory for one town lists two "colored cafes," one "Mexican" and one "colored and white." But everyday life was a matter of hard work for the Aileys of that world, work that started before the sun rose and ended after it set. White children went to school, Alvin's mother remarked many years later, and black children picked cotton.

Rogers and Navasota, the towns where Alvin lived longest, are on the wide, muddy Brazos, one of the largest rivers in the state, where the first crops of cotton, planted in 1825, had been harvested by slave labor. In 1930, 62 percent of the black population of Texas lived in rural areas, although that would begin to change within the decade as blacks and whites were lured away by the promise of good industrial jobs far from dying farms and drowsy towns.

For the blacks who stayed, life held the promise of extended families, long Sunday dinners and even longer Sunday church services during which one repented the sins of the Saturday night before. The children had pastures and wooden sidewalks to race across, ponds to plunge into, horses to ride and snakes to torture, and pecans, peaches, pears and plums to harvest and sell. Few instances of bad behavior went unseen and unpunished, for almost everyone was part of a large, extended family of kinfolk, neighbors and friends.

This was the life lived by whites, too, whose comings and goings were duly recorded in the Navasota Examiner. "Mrs. Lockett Kennard of Anderson was shopping here this morning," a 1934 personals column reported. "Dr. Beatrice Hammons will leave tomorrow for Houston to spend the weekend." Stories about two-headed calves, pickle collections and eggplant fields competed for space with news of war, international celebrities and escaped convicts. "Jiggs is the meanest animal in the ape house," a zookeeper announced in newspaper filler titled "Chimpanzee Turns Sissy," "but give him a mirror and he softens up at once."

One issue offered news of the visit of an African evangelist to "the colored Methodist Church." A long front-page story is devoted to the death of an "Old slave of Navasota man," "Aunt" Easter Barry "as she was known to her many many white friends. Both white and colored alike will be sorry to learn of `Aunt' Easter's death."

Black lives were as peaceful and secure as racism and poverty would allow. The number of lynchings had dropped steadily during the second half of the decade, with the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama reporting a total of three in 1939, in Florida and Mississippi. But there was muted talk among the grown-ups of murders, the Ku Klux Klan and imprisonment, all of which were feared realities in the lives of most black males. Some were afraid to live in the small wooden "box" houses peculiar to southern towns, for it was too easy to be shot in the back while running along the straight hall from the front to the back door if unwelcome visitors arrived.

Matty Duckens, one of Alvin's many cousins, tells of a night when she, a child clinging to her father's shirt, watched him face down white men who suddenly appeared at their door. "They had guns, and they told my father that if he didn't stop talking up they'd tar and feather him. He told them to start heating up the tar."

It was a world that Alvin's mother, Lula Elizabeth Cliff, knew intimately, though from the perspective of someone who did not entirely belong. Born in 1912, she was the light-skinned granddaughter of a white man and a black woman. Unable to live together legally, Louisia and Jenkins Cliff--Lula's paternal grandparents--were forced to meet in clandestine visits on Friday nights in Milano, Texas, where Louisia lived with her children, and for a time with Lula, whose mother, after whom she was named, had died when Lula was two. One of the earliest of Lula's vivid memories was of her grandfather Jenkins's long arms wrapping around her in an embrace, with treats for all the children stuffed into his pockets.

Lula's father, Norman Jenkins Cliff, was a farmer who grew squash, persimmons, apples, pears and chickens in a life that sometimes seemed idyllic to his youngest child. He was also tough, strong willed and unswerving in his morals.

Lula was five when her father took a new wife, "a beautiful Indian lady" named Ardela Fantry. The marriage ended tragically when Norman caught her with another man, an incident Lula remembered many years later in vivid detail. "I was playing. Papa came back and asked me where my mother was. `Probably in the bedroom,' I said. Papa knocked on the door. Nobody said nothing. He took out his key and opened the door. There she was in bed with this man. `Get up and put your clothes on and go home,' Papa told him. He didn't raise his voice, and that really hurt her.

"It was still early in the day. Papa just went about his work. She had a corn on her foot. The doctor was treating it with antiseptic tablets he said would kill forty-eight mules, but it didn't seem to get any better. She was writing. I thought she was probably writing her folk. Then she took three tablets and she killed herself. She was writing to her family, `Norman didn't get upset.'"

Lula was only sixteen when she married Alvin Ailey, a good-looking young man she had met in church and gotten to know at picnics and other community events. Norman objected to their marriage on the grounds that Alvin and his impoverished family had no "get-up-and-go." Doomed from the start, their marriage began, at her father's insistence, with a wedding night in the bride's home in a room with a lamp that was to remain lighted all night.

Looking back, Lula could not remember if her husband was present at their son's birth. Eighteen at the time, she went into labor on the afternoon of January 4, 1931, in her father-in-law's wooden cabin, in a room that contained only the bed she lay on, a cot and a potbellied stove.

Dr. F. F. Flanagan, an imperturbable white family doctor in Rogers, arrived when called that afternoon but promptly read the signs of a delayed delivery and made himself comfortable. He called for a spit cup, dipped some snuff, then kicked off his boots and fell asleep on the cot.

Alvin Ailey Jr. was born during the dark, icy morning of January 5. The doctor awoke an hour before he arrived and, calling for hot water, delivered the child without further delay. The baby seemed unremarkable, at least for the first few moments after his birth. "Look at that kid," the doctor suddenly cried. Alvin had strained up to stare around him, resting on his pudgy elbows as if to survey the world. He had moved so little in the womb that Lula wondered if her first child was dead. "But he got busy as soon as he was born."

He was a big baby, with so large a head that his mother wondered whether he might be hydrocephalic. He also displayed a profound reluctance to walk on his own, so Lula carried him everywhere, walking slowly with him slung on her hip for the first year and a half of his life. "I wouldn't let him walk anywhere," Lula remembered. "I just thought he couldn't. But one day I told him, `You sure are getting heavy. I'm going to have to put you down.'

"I put him down on the ground. And that little boy spun around like a top. I said, `I thought you told me you couldn't walk.' He said I didn't let him. He made two or three flips like he'd been experimenting."

That the child was so large and active seemed something of a miracle. Cradling Alvin in her arms just after his birth, his undernourished mother found she was unable to breast-feed him. "One of Alvin's great-uncles, Uncle John, was a minister, and he had a club," Lula recalled. "When people got babies or were sick or something, everybody in the group that belonged to his church had to bring this person a pound of beans or flour or sugar or something." Sugar from the Benevolent Society was wrapped in a cloth to create "sugar tits" for the roly-poly baby until he was able to eat table food that his mother crushed with a spoon.

With thirteen men, women and children living in the cold, single-walled cabin, there was as little room as there was food, so when Alvin was three months old, his parents moved with him to a one-room cabin of their own. Just outside Rogers, the cabin was on the property of Horace Crouth, a white landowner with a reputation for tightfistedness, who allowed them to live there in return for working on his farm.

What their new home made up for in privacy, however, it lacked in comforts. The only furniture was a cot and a pot-bellied stove for warmth and for cooking. Meals were milk from a farm cow, bread made from hand-crushed corn and water that came from a muddy, dirty tank.

Alvin Ailey Sr. fled three months later, abandoning his wife and son. With the fierce determination that would rule her life and that of her child, Lula decided she would remain on the farm and make a better life for herself. She was soon taking in washing and ironing, the time-honored work of black women. And she planted a bean garden that fed the two--and indirectly prompted the first of many moves.

One day when Alvin was two, Lula put on a pot of beans to cook for dinner that night. She left for work at Mr. Crouth's, looking over from time to time to make sure that her son was playing safely in the yard. But when she went home to check on the beans, which were just beginning to soften, there seemed to be fewer in the pot. She asked Alvin what had happened to them and he told her he didn't know. But that night, after dinner, he began to groan and Lula noticed that his stomach was distended. He had eaten the half-cooked beans.

She gathered up the child, propped him on her back and began the eight-mile walk into Rogers to Dr. L. E. Etter, a white doctor who treated blacks. It was late, and the country roads were not only unpaved but dark. Trees and bushes reached out over the road, scratching Lula and her baby as they hurried along, Lula watching for the hidden attackers that black women had good reason to fear.

Lights appeared in the distance. They had arrived at last. Would Dr. Etter even open his door to them? Lula knocked at the back and he appeared, dressed in pajamas, and took the two into his consulting room. Castor oil was prescribed, as well as a good night's rest in the doctor's house. The next morning, horrified that Lula had walked all the way to his house, Dr. Etter drove them home and was even more shocked to see their bleak living conditions. He returned the following day. His wife needed help, he said. Would they move to his home, to servant quarters behind his house? After deliberating for a week, Lula packed their possessions in a flour sack and walked back into Rogers with her son.

Life with the Etters was pleasant until Alvin Sr. returned in May 1935. The reunion was not a happy one. "He was a big, fine-looking guy, dark skinned with black curly hair. He was a good man. He wasn't rude to me. He was a straight well-dresser, but he just wasn't a well-worker. He just didn't have the education to take care of a family. His family was the same. They depended on Mr. Crouth all their lives. So I just made up my mind I was going to do something about this.

"I told my father I was going to separate from him. And my daddy told me, `You married him, you're going to stay with him. There will be no divorces in this Cliff family.' I said to myself I'd fix him." At the time she was earning $3 a week, her highest salary during the Rogers years. "I started saving it up. I didn't tell anybody what I was going to do."

Lula left the Etters and her husband four months later, in early September. At the railroad station in Rogers, she asked the clerk to sell her a ticket for as far away as the $8 in her pocket would buy. She and Alvin boarded the midnight train and left for Wharton, Texas, arriving very early the next morning to find themselves stranded with no money on the station platform. Maggie Earl, a gentle, observant black woman who had been traveling on the same train, invited Lula to live with her until Lula found her bearings in Wharton. There were chores to be done in the Earl household and cotton to be picked in the fields beyond.

Alvin picked with his mother, although his work consisted mostly of an occasional, rather lordly separating of the unopened bolls that had found their way into the sacks of cotton. Mostly, Lula recalled, he slept on top of the sacks.

Lula had a sharp tongue and was, as she would later laughingly describe herself, "a tough old hen." She could be just as unbending to her little boy, who in his earliest years was often left alone or with unfamiliar relatives. At times, weary from working, Lula would drink too much.

She was also a living, thrilling embodiment of theatricality. Tall, thin and graceful, with glowing dark eyes and a teasing smile, she had the kind of clear, casual beauty seen in white models of the 1940s. She was fanciful and unpredictable, and not the most comfortable mother for an introspective and uncertain child. But though she would brush off the suggestion many years later, her behavior fed the kind of youthful fantasy and imaginative thought that breeds artists. And she accepted her son as an equal.

"Alvin and I, we kind of listened to each other. He'd say, `Lula, let's do so-and-so' and expect me to do it. He was kind of bossy. He'd call me Lula until I started teaching him to call me Mama when he was eight or nine."

She began to suspect that her toddler son might be unusually bright when Alvin, who followed her everywhere once he began to walk, found an unusual Christmas present for her and gave it a name that Lula found intriguing. "He picked up everything on the street. One time, he found a stick, made like a chicken breast." After stripping the bark and polishing the forked stick, he presented it to his mother. "Gee, how beautiful," Lula told him. "Well, I thought you'd like it," he answered. "Now I'm going to give it a name."

"`I said, `What's the name?' He said, `A cottee.' And I've looked everywhere to see what that means, and it's nowhere."

The two shared precious times of closeness, telling jokes and reading stories from "some old books" Lula had bought. They took turns retelling the stories to each other, and from day to day Alvin never forgot whose turn it was. He sat with Lula while she quilted, threading needles for her and telling her about his day. They took long walks in the woods, where a favorite activity of Alvin's was picking bouquets of wildflowers and weeds for his mother, some of which they saved and dried. "That little boy nearly picked himself to death," Lula said. "Anything that bloomed--wild onions, Crow Poison, dandelions, whatever."

On one such walk they passed a deserted old wood-frame house peering out at them through the trees. Built on stilts near the Brazos River, the shack was livable. The roof didn't leak. There was a potbellied stove. Lula guessed that somebody had moved on to Houston or Dallas once the children were grown.

Alvin stopped and turned to his mother. He loved the house, he said. Couldn't they live there, in a home of their own? Lula agreed. For the past nine months they had been staying with Fannie Warfield, a black woman who lived in nearby Wharton. It was time to move on. Mrs. Warfield helped them furnish the house, and they moved in. As always, though, it was not to last.

Lula was now earning enough money picking cotton to afford three full meals a day, but she soon realized that her little son was carefully putting parts of his meals aside." `You're supposed to clean your plate,' I told him, because we didn't have that much food."

She noticed that Alvin was taking the leftover food and disappearing with it outside the house. One day she followed him quietly and discovered that he was hand-feeding the most enormous chicken snake she had ever seen. She knew it was not poisonous, but the sight of the huge snake, along with a frightening shower of praying mantises that her son had shaken free one day from a tree near the front porch, made up her mind to move.

Lula slipped back to the house and announced to her son that they would leave for Rogers the next day, returning later for his pet. They never did return. She found work cooking and cleaning for Mrs. Dorothy Ball, a white woman in Rogers who had a cabin where Lula and Alvin could live.

Almost five now, Alvin was able to cross town by himself to play with his twin cousins, Franny Lee and Tranny Lee. It was a relatively carefree time at first. "Mrs. Ball was such a sweet woman," Lula recalled. "Our house was in the back. She used to come to the window and sing `Walking My Baby Back Home' when the time came for me to come in and work." One day, hanging laundry to dry in the sun, Lula looked up and across the road to see a young white woman watching her from beyond the picket fence. Their eyes met, and the woman waved and disappeared. Lula later learned that she was Bonnie Parker of Bonnie and Clyde fame, hiding out with members of the Parker-Barrow gang who lived in Rogers.

Violence of a much more personal nature was to follow when, on her way back to the house after work, Lula was raped. Her face contorted with disgust, decades after the attack, remembering the old white man who raped her. Stumbling into the house, battered and weeping uncontrollably, she could not tell her little boy what had happened as he tried to help her, running for a wet rag to wash her face.

Alvin did all he could think to do to calm and take care of his mother, so suddenly and uncharacteristically helpless. But a five-year-old boy could do little for such pain.

He found out what had happened, almost before he knew what the word rape meant, when he overheard adults murmuring about the attack. His mother never discussed it.

Three moves followed in quick succession. Lula and Alvin went to live briefly with Nettie Corouthers, Alvin's aunt on his father's side and the twins' mother. Then it was south to Milano and the home of Lula's sister Inez Douglas. Finally, the two returned to Aunt Nettie's place again. There Alvin followed the girls, who were slightly older, into kindergarten and was allowed to stay, although he was too young to enroll in the church school. To the teacher's surprise, he was soon singing his way through the multiplication tables.

The days passed in ordinary pursuits. A chubby child nicknamed "Big Head," Alvin shot marbles in the road and had a brick lobbed at him by a little girl with whom he played. The amount of blood was frightening, but the injury left only a small vertical scar on his forehead that would later add a touch of extra character to the faunlike beauty gazing out of photographic theater headshots.

Many hours were spent watching trucks and trains go by. When the children got carried away one day and sat on the track as a freight train approached, Lula appeared in the nick of time and "whupped" them with a switch torn from a handy peach tree for the punishment.

Sunday mornings were spent in fervent song and prayer at the tiny Mount Olive Baptist Church on a dusty, unpaved road across from the railroad tracks. The one-room, white-frame building is one of the few landmarks of Alvin's childhood still standing in Rogers.

The air inside the tiny church is musty on a scorching July afternoon, sunlight filtering through the windows that range the length of the room. Today everything has a worn but cherished look--stick-on stained-glass patterns that cover the windows, tufts of faded plastic flowers sprouting here and there, paper fans and wooden benches and folding chairs, an upright piano and simple wooden pulpit and altar. On either side of the altar are straight chairs, covered with blue cushions, on which the devoted sit facing the congregation and publicly "get right with God."

The thrilling power of what went on here, of songs and personalities lovingly remembered by an observant little boy, is not so hard to imagine. Not only were there mesmerizing four-hour services but also the sense of growing up in the faith and in an enduring community of the faithful.

Alvin was mischievous and a bit of a rebel. His church pennies were dispensed a few here, a few there, in various collections. Once, a nickel somehow remained rooted inside his pants pocket. "Mama," he whispered to Lula, reverting to babyhood, "I was baaaad. You gave me a nickel to put in the church and I got a nickel left. I wonder how it got into my pocket."

Sister Hattie Taplin, president of the missionary society and wife of the pastor, would sometimes ask the children to lead a prayer. "Which one of you youngsters would like to pray?" Miss Hattie asked one Sunday. Alvin waved his arm but another child was called on and made his way through "Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep." Miss Hattie asked for another volunteer. Again, Alvin's arm shot up and again he was not chosen. A second child cantered through the Lord's Prayer for the congregation. "All right, Alvin Ailey Jr.," Miss Hattie finally called out.

Irritated at having to wait so long for his turn, Alvin knelt, cleared his throat loudly and stood up, without uttering a word.

"Well, you did one thing right, Alvin," Miss Hattie said. "You got down on your knees." The congregation exploded into laughter. Had anyone ever heard of a prayer like that? Miss Hattie asked rhetorically. "Alvin had his way, or else," Lula recalled. "It was the longest time before we could stop laughing."

Baptisms were an integral part of the life of the church. Down a slight incline from the church was a pond ringed with thick grass, scrub and a few trees, where the sacrament took place. Deacons stood in the water, beating back snakes and keeping at bay, the children hoped, the alligator they believed to live there.

One by one, the children entered the pond, the boys dressed only in their underpants, and were lowered backwards into the water. As they were released, they scrambled up the bank and were toweled dry and wrapped in white sheets by the church sisters. Then they made their way back up to the church to dress. On this all-important Sunday in Alvin's young life, the joyous prayers were interrupted by Miss Hattie's voice suddenly raised in the haunting, troubled spiritual "I Been 'Buked and I Been Scorned." Unforgettable intimations of pain as well as of mortality lay in the song's simple words. Pain and joy, Alvin learned early, usually accompanied each other.

Work often took Lula away from Alvin, and she sometimes screamed at him and hit him when he cried at her departures. At times the abuse was psychological. Cruelly, she once told him that his father was a dashing young man named Eddie Warfield, whom Alvin had observed from afar in a barroom brawl. Although she confessed soon after that she had been teasing, a lifelong doubt was planted in Alvin's mind.

His life was soon to change profoundly, with another move. Determined to make a home for herself and her son, Lula searched relentlessly for better and better jobs. She was driven to provide a good life for the two of them, no matter the cost. She hated "handouts," wanting no one "to give me something for nothing."

In the summer of 1936, Lula came across an advertisement in a local newspaper for work in Navasota, a larger town where help was needed preparing meals for a highway crew. She dropped Alvin off with an older sister and left for Navasota.

Three weeks passed and she returned. Her five-year-old son, pushed by his dislike for a pretty, slightly older little cousin, had left Rogers, hitchhiking the miles to Milano and another aunt. Alvin later intimated that the children had experimented sexually with each other. "Stars of mercy," Lula exclaimed many years after. "Oh, boy, maybe that's why they were mad at each other. You never can tell what children will do." She collected her son and the two traveled back to Navasota--to a time Alvin would remember as one of the happiest of his life.

© 1996 Jennifer Dunning


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