It’s eleven o’clock in the morning. I can’t seem to keep my hands from shaking as I sit watching the world go by through the bay window of my grand room. The crystal chandelier in this room is older than I am. The white leather sofa is still just as soft as the day it was purchased.
Darla, my housekeeper, comes in to offer me some tea, but my nerves have gotten the better part of me.
“Don’t worry, ma’am, you will do fine.”
I smiled at her. My husband had been the one to hire her. He always made the right decisions. It seems like only yesterday the two of us were picking out this house.
“I miss him.”
“Yes, ma’am. I do, too.”
“I’m sorry, Darla. Didn’t mean to say that out loud.”
“It’s okay, ma’am. You got a right to say what you want in your own house.”
I glance back at the window to see a car approaching. “Close the curtains for me, dear.”
I try to straighten out my dress and make sure my pearls are hanging properly. My husband used to say that “Pearls are the statement of a woman’s courage.”
I put on layers of them this morning.
I turned to see my butler standing near the entryway.
“There is a Mr. Claudel here to see you.”
“I’m expecting him. Please show him into the study.”
I feel like I’m about to step back onto the stage as I grasp the brass doorknob to the study. I can’t hear my heart beating; that’s what age does to you. Makes it so you don’t hear your own body when it’s in trouble.
I’m going to tell my story today. I’m going to tell my life’s story to a complete stranger who is then going to turn it into a book. A book they want to call
It’s a title that’s precious to me. It holds a lot of history. Sits close to my heart, it seems. Although it’s been over 20 years now, it still rings true to me. Still grabs at my heart strings. For buried deep within is the story of a young girl. No, not just a young girl, but a young, black, country girl who wanted to show the world that her feet could dance on the backs of clouds even when they said she couldn’t.
I am told that the world wants to hear my story.
The story of the first black ballerina to grace the stages of Broadway with a principal role. It’s a story of tragedy, love, betrayal, and bitterness, and then finding myself again to live a dream that I didn’t know even existed.
I was a girl who was to fulfill a plan. No, a purpose. A purpose that was driven down into the tips of my toes. How was I to accomplish such a task? There were no manuscripts, no self-help books.
In fact, I had be come my worst enemy.
I was a girl with skin that gave way to creams of mocha hues, thick lips and deep hazel eyes. When I looked in the mirror, I certainly didn’t look like a ballerina.
Not from the skin up, that is.
But I certainly had the body of one.
Back then, I was just at 90 pounds with lean and limber limbs. A short torso. Lengthy arms that could rock back and forth the way any artistic director wanted. Dark black hair that hung just below the mid part of my back. Five feet, six inches in height, which made me not too tall and not too short. Shoulders slightly larger than my hips. Long and elegant neckline. I had knees that had a slight hyper-extension when I stood straight.
In the world of ballet, they say that no dancer has the perfect body. I suppose I hadn’t been thought of when that statement was made. You see, I wasn’t one that had to work to develop a ballerina’s body, I was born into it.
When they first approached me about the book, I was afraid. Afraid to tell it as it was. But then I began to think about every young black girl who has dreamed. Dreamed of dancing. Dreamed of flying on the clouds. Dreamed of moving to the
They deserve to know that it can be done. They deserve to know that they can dance in a white woman’s world.
I owe them. I owe her, the woman who made it all possible.
“Mr. Claudel,” I say as I swing open the doors like I am entering a grand ballroom. “It’s wonderful to see you again.”
“Yes, ma’am. The pleasure, of course, is mine. Are you ready to get started?”
Dear God, when he turned on that tape recorder, I swear my heart went running out the front door butt naked down the street. But then, who wants to see an middle-aged, butt-naked woman? So, I grab hold of my pearls and remember…
All you have to do is breathe.
That’s when I open my mouth and allow my county roots to carry me back to 1987.
The year that changed my entire being….
Butterfly Name: Orange Tip
T hey say on the night that I was born, June 30, 1969, the fringes of the moon could be seen peeking out through the thin layers of the clouds. They say that the rain had done come down so hard it felt like something was tearing away at your soul, drop by drop. They say my mama was laying in the birthing room screaming because I was ripping her life away from her. They say that the doctors wanted to cut away at her tummy, but she had done plain out refused. She was an ebullient woman, with the heart of an unbreakable but beautiful stallion.
I ain’t never seen the woman with eyes so blue they felt like they could reach down into the pit of your core and tell you about yourself. I ain’t never seen the warmth of her smile or the way she could soothe my daddy with her kind-hearted words. People talk under their breath about her. Talk about how long her silky blond hair was or how thin and soft her frame was. I do alls I can when I hear them whispering about the woman who gave her life so I could dance in the rain on a hot summer day.
Just before she took her last breath they say that she stared into my eyes and smiled because I done come into the world with what she thought was the better part of her. The one feature that my daddy loved the most.
She was the one who placed the weight of my name upon me. Precious Blue Johnson, but everyone around here in Lutts County, Georgia, fixed my name
My dear, sweet Daddy is a tall, well-stocked-around-the-tummy man. I heard that back in his heyday he sported a nicely trimmed frame of six feet, two inches. That his hair used to be slicked back so perfectly there wasn’t a black woman in Lutts County that wasn’t dying to give it a coat or two of sweet brown sugar with the very tips of their hard-worked fingers.
His shoulders hang now sometimes, but that wasn’t always the case. No, it be said that when Charles Johnson used to walk down these dirt-filled roads, his shoulders stood towering with an air of confidence that one could breathe in from a mile away.
Once upon a time, it be rumored that his hazel brown eyes were fixed on singing his way out of Lutts County. They still talk about this fact in the rooms of their barely-able-to-stand homes, where they figure can’t nobody hear them but God. Whispering under the dim lights about how it is such a shame that he wasted his talent on a white woman.
There are nights when I would wonder what his voice must have sounded like. I would hear him humming sometimes, but I ain’t never heard the sound of butter flowing from his lips.
That’s what they say he sounded like.
Butterfly Name: Essex Skipper
The slap across my face came with such intensity it had done sent me back to the time of when the black woman was caught not picking the cotton in the fields fast enough and the master would come and give her something to make her pick up the pace.
“Didn’t you hear me calling you, young lady?!”
“No, ma’am,” I exclaimed as I stood toe-to-toe with Daddy’s third wife of one year. They say evilness is something that can lurk down in the pit of someone’s kidneys, and it takes a rather severe act of unkindness to draw it up. That ain’t true in the case of Trudy. No, her evilness be dripping off the tips of her fingers and any act could send it lashing upside your head in a blazing fury.
She smiled through her clenched fist as I stood with my feet, solidly braced, waiting for my skin to feel another wave of her evilness.
“Why isn’t the kitchen cleaned like I asked you?”
She didn’t tell me to clean the kitchen, but I don’t remind her of this. I simply say, “I’m heading down to do it now. I must have forgotten.” I throw in a quick “I’m sorry” just to get a rare moment of peace between us.
“Sure you are. Don’t think I don’t know you‘re trying to be sarcastic with me.” I doubt she can spell the word sarcastic. As I begin approaching the stairway, I can feel her behind me, breathing hard.
I looked into the kitchen sink and noticed that there are only a few dishes in there. Dishes that I know she just put there. I could feel her presence hovering over, waiting for me to say something. But I don’t. I simply filled the sink with water and pulled out the dishcloth.
“I don’t know why your daddy keeps you in this house,” she starts to say to me. “Nineteen years old and still living under your daddy’s coattails. You know, I ain’t like those other women. I won’t stand for it. I been putting up with it for a year now, but you mark my words, your butt be out of here within a month. Only one woman ought to run a man’s heart.”
What my daddy had seen in Trudy I couldn’t imagine. Not even a little, and trust that I tried long and hard. You see, Trudy was a plump woman with shoulder-length hair. Slightly brown skin, a few tints darker than mine. Thick fingers with unclean nails. Her voice was heavy. Deep. You know, the kind that made you wonder about her. But she could cook, and I guess Daddy found a speck of love for her in his stomach more than his heart and soundness of mind.
“You pretty girls think your looks are going to carry you off into a world where cooking and cleaning don’t exist. Your daddy let you be nothing but a high-yellow girl full of laziness. I bet you think your being so light make you special. I’m sure you think it makes you better than me! But it don’t. It only proves that in the end your daddy came to the realization that a black woman like me, with some hips, is supposed to be in his life.” She placed her hands on her thick hips and stuck her blooming chest out at me. “You’re nothing but a reflection of a wrong decision, honey. That’s what you are. He told me that himself.” She nodded her head and started biting down on her lower lip.
Must be getting around lunchtime, I thought.
“Not sure what he saw in that rail figure of a woman, no how,” she continued.
My insides felt like they were balling up in a rage that I wouldn’t be able to contain within my bones, as I listened to her.
She stared down at my trembling hands. “What, you ready to fight now because I told you the truth? Your daddy don’t love you. How could he, when every time he looks at you, he’s reminded of why he still struggling here in Lutts County?”
Dear God, I ain’t never been disrespectful in my life. You know I speaks the truth, but this here woman is causing me to want to put aside my upbringing.
“That’s right,” she spat. “Your daddy told me that if that white woman hadn’t gotten herself pregnant, he wouldn’t have ever made the mistake of marrying her white-trash behind. You’re the reason he never got a chance to fulfill his dreams.”
“Don’t you dare talk about my mama like that!” I screamed as I turned toward her.
“Why? She be nothing but white trash, and you be nothing but the unwanted child that sprung from her.”
I can’t tell you when it happened. I can’t say that I didn’t want it to happen, but when my hand connected with the right side of her tough skin, I prayed to God that she felt it.
“Precious Blue Johnson!”
Daddy stood in the doorway, glaring at me.
“I want her out of this house, Charles! I want her out of this house tonight!” Trudy screamed.
I stared at my daddy, the man I have loved and respected all my life. I felt the tears streaming down the sides of my face. I felt my knees shaking and my heart trembling. My eyes pleading with him to find that soundness of mind he done lost when Trudy came wobbling through his life and fixed him the best peach cobbler he had ever had.
“I mean what I say, Charles! Either she goes or I go!”
“Don’t Trudy me! Get her out. A man is supposed to stick to his wife! That’s me, Charles, or have you forgotten who’s been doing the cooking and cleaning and making that old heart of yours feel like it’s beating again?”
“It don’t matter what happened. You saw with your own eyes. This here
child reached her hand out to me — in our house! Now, you do what I’m telling you or I will march upstairs and start packing my bags!”
With his head down and his manhood dragging on the floor, I heard the words I never thought I’d hear from my daddy.
“Go pack your bags, Precious. I need you to leave now.”
“Where am I supposed to go, Daddy?” I asked out of fear, anger and a heap of sadness.
Trudy stood there, trying to hide the underlying grin upon her face. “Finally be a real man, Charles. It’s time she fend for herself.”
“Shut up!” I snapped, defending my daddy from her assault.
“You hear her, Charles? I ain’t going to stand for no grown woman disrespecting me in my own house! I want her out!”
“Daddy…” I pleaded.
He looked at me like he was trying to find his backbone, but when his head sank lower than the earth could carry, I knew old wobble-woman had done won.
“I’m sorry, Precious.”
I felt like someone done sucked the air that he and I used to breathe as I headed up the stairs of our small two-bedroom home that was currently being held up by cement bricks.
In the darkness of my heart and bedroom, I tried right then and there to forgive. Sat down on my bed begging for the hatred to be carried away from me like the men who beat the chaff into the air when they be cleaning out the stalls.
Truth be told, this type of pain was new for me. It was coming from a place I never wanted to exist. It was coming from my daddy. But I ain’t gonna hate him. I won’t give wobble-woman the satisfaction of knowing that she got my heart split open and flowing with tears.
But now I got to ask myself… Where do I go? What will I do and how will I live?