By Cleavon Smith
Being from the South, few of us say we’re from “the South.” We know we’re from someplace much more specific than that. To the public we may say we’re from Mississippi or New Orleans or the Islands. But deep in our hearts we know we’re from Thomastown or Southend or some other such named place rarely marked in a map anywhere other than in our hearts.
I carried this knowing of mine, this orientation to the South as a place incredibly specific in my heart with me into the home of Mr. Billy Rayford. I regarded this orientation thinking it may be the key to understanding Mr. Rayford’s story. I was looking for easy angles into the story, but in looking for shortcuts, I soon found that I had nearly missed the end point entirely.
Mr. Rayford has lived in Oakland for the past forty years. He retired in 2008 after nearly forty years working as a music instructor for the Oakland Unified School District. Though he pushes a walker ahead of himself to help get about, he still stands with a woodwind player’s posture.
I came into his home and was immediately a guest. Our meeting was spur of the moment. My son is best friends with Mr. Rayford’s granddaughter, so I’d gotten in touch about the interview and he invited me over immediately. As we walked from his front door to the kitchen island where I’d sit and across from which he’d stand for the interview, Mr. Rayford grabbed a few loose papers here and there and stacked them out of our way. He offered me water, and as he turned to pour me a glass, he started the interview, asking me about my time at the Naval Academy and in the fleet. His father and uncle had worked on the shipyards at Mare Island, so my having been in the Navy had always been a point of his interest for him.
For some reason he doesn’t share, and I followed suit by not inquiring, he shows me the program from his uncle’s funeral service. I think about the program from my aunt’s homegoing ceremony I’d just attended two weeks before. Mr. Rayford then goes on to tell how his father and his uncle came over from Cameron, Texas back in 1941. I learn his father and mother were both born in 1919. His father was somewhat neglected and the youngest of 9 siblings. Both his mother’s parents had died by the time she was ten. The two lonely and Depression-weary young people met on the train to Oakland and their __ year partnership ensued.
While he searches through papers on the kitchen island, we talk a bit about his parents. At least we begin to do so. He tells me his mother is from New Albany, Mississippi. This hits home for me. Literally. New Albany is maybe 20 miles from my hometown; I drive through it on every trip to or from the Memphis Airport for each of my visits back to my childhood home in Baldwyn, Mississippi. I tell him this, and Mr. Rayford peppers me with more questions about me I’m obliged and grateful to answer.
I don’t want to talk about myself. I’m sensitive to the time and my task. I want to hear about how he experienced the South through his parents. I ask what foods did they eat, what customs did they uphold, what expressions, what anything set him apart from others because of this thing cloaking his being called “the South” which must have informed how his parents reared him. None of the questions seem to register though, but more problematic is the fact that I’m enjoying the conversation too much. I don’t really have the time. I need very specific information. I ask again something that went like “What about your parents being from the South made you different from the other kids growing up around you?” Mr. Rayford looks at me. Truth be told, I thought it was a blank expression communicating to me that he didn’t understand my question.
As I try to figure out a respectful and tactful way of asking again, he finally answers, “I wasn’t different from anybody. Everybody around me was from the South.”
I had been the one not understanding. Mr. Rayford wasn’t misunderstanding me; he was wondering why I was misunderstanding him.
How had I not understood that whole communities of Oakland, Vallejo, Richmond and San Francisco were made up of people just like his parents who had left the South, carrying with them “nothing but a suitcase and a dream”?
“Like the Ukranians,” Mr. Rayford adds, “leaving everything behind and knowing they’re probably not ever coming back.”
He finally begins to tell me something specific about his parents’ experiences in the South. I wait for it, but the few details aren’t specific to the senses. He relays messages about the heat or the fatigue from working in fields, but nothing very specific. His parents didn’t implant memories of June bugs lighting up the yard in late spring, nor did they pass down stories of making mud pies and watching the red clay dry on their hands in ways to make their memories his. They didn’t memorialize the dank smell of a storm shelter or the evening din of cicadas, toads and crickets.
Mr. Rayford shrugs a shoulder slightly and tilts his head in the opposite direction as if to sweep for something that would satisfy my persistent inquiry. Finally he shares that his parents never talked much about the South except to tell about how bad they had had it.
It’s all too much really, for me and Mr. Rayford. Not our time together nor the conversation, but this interview, this asking of the past from a man who inherited his parents’ spirit, a daring to not look back. It makes no sense to keep pressing when to do so would be only an imposition upon him, a conferring of memories and meaning not of his own making nor desire. Though family visited him and his parents in California, his parents never took him to the South. “Not once,” he said with his face asking why would they. Still though, he will not deny how he is very much a product of that place. Yet the impression he has, as handed down by his parents, is not that of a place; but of a condition.
And that too is being from the South, for just as much as it is a place, for some of those who left it, it is at times only a condition. It is Southend, and it is a struggle to hold onto to the truth of your being as it is being bombarded by lies. It is Thomastown, and it’s a sulfurous simmering of a soldering resentment dancing in softshoe disguise. So if one may assume those debarking the train at West Oakland Station back in the 40’s to have had Spanish moss on the soles of their shoes, we may also assume that the offboarding passenger just as likely had a hand atrophied into a fist from so long keeping at bay her scream when answering to something other than her name and every bit much beneath her modest dignity.
Abruptly before me Mr. Rayford fans out the photos he must have been looking for. They are not of his parents, but of his grandchildren. I know two of them, my son’s best friend in the neighborhood and her little brother. The other three, Mr. Rayford introduces to me. He shares their scholastic accomplishments, their aspirations, as well as his own hopes for them.
This whole time, I’ve been asking him to look back, he’s been searching the house for these photos to share those details. Then I realize what I should have seen all along had I not been looking for what I thought I already knew. Mr. Rayford is very much the product of his upbringing, a very Southern upbringing. Without denying history or ignoring his past, he’s doing what his parents before him had done, what so many of Oakland’s residents have done before us, what I’m hoping to do as well. He dares to look ahead and in doing so manifests our ancestor’s wildest dreams.
Cleavon Smith is an award-winning playwright and professor originally from Mississippi. He was awarded a California Arts Council grant to collect stories from Oakland residents about what makes Oakland home. Cleavon lives in Oakland and teaches English at Berkeley City College. He has served as an artist mentor for Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Young Writers of Color Collective. Born at the dawn of Mississippi’s post-Jim Crow experiment, he took to writing as a way of making a space for himself and the others with similar experiences.
Mr. Billy Rayford, an Oakland for the past forty years, with roots from Texas. He retired in 2008 after nearly forty years working as a music instructor for the Oakland Unified School District.