Stormy Weather: Chapter One
Horne later reflected on the hard knocks they were willing to endure in order to practice their craft. She herself paid a harsh price for her mother's ambitions. For the next six years, Edna would drag her from town to town as she searched, mostly in vain, for acting work; she would leave her child in foster care, then vanish, sometimes for months. More han once, she would reappear in the middle of the night and snatch ena away, claiming her father was about to kidnap her.
But Lena could never have foreseen all that as she rode the train to Miami with Edna, whose illness left her moaning all the way. There in the sweltering South, the two carted their bags to their temporary new home, a little frame boardinghouse. It stood behind a railroad track in a Negro slum. Lena recalled it as a "tumble-down shack with a sagging porch, broken stairs, and no plumbing." The kitchen had a dirt floor; cinders blew in the window when a train passed. Each room sheltered anywhere from two people to a family, all of whom shared "a foul outhouse." Young as Lena was, this descent into rural poverty must have seemed an unexplainable fall from grace.
Edna's professional fortunes in Miami proved slim. She took on odd jobs—salesclerk, maid—to support her and her daughter. For the first time, Lena learned what lay behind much of the antiwhite talk in Brooklyn. From almost any white she felt a cold draft or downright hostility. Her feet hurt because her new shoes didn't fit; Negroes weren't allowed to try on merchandise, for if they didn't buy the item, no white person would, either. At home, fellow boarders at the house spoke hatefully of "crackers"—a popular southern term for bigots.
Some kindness awaited Lena at the one-room schoolhouse where Edna sent her. The Hornes contains a touching photo of the child flanked by two classmates. She grins proudly as she hugs both girls close; one of them beams at her adoringly. But Lena was also learning that sometimes no one was meaner to Negroes than other Negroes. Perhaps because of her reading skills, the six-year-old had been placed a grade ahead. Her resentful schoolmates called her "dumb." Worse still, they taunted her for her northern accent and light skin, which to them meant she was "high yaller"—in a drawled pronunciation of "high yellow," which denoted the child of a mixed-race union. Up North, her lighter skin gave her advantages. Lighter-skinned Negroes there were perceived to be "better"; here that look signaled the blood of the reviled white man.
The jeers crushed her. But Edna was too preoccupied to offer much comfort. In their travels, she did find a few tent-show jobs. But much of the time, recalled Lena, Edna wound up "stranded, and starved, and once she was caught in a company where one member was lynched." Lena saw her mother turn frustrated and sad. She took it out on her little girl; minor infractions, such as leaving her sweater at school, brought beatings.
In her self-centeredness, Edna also unthinkingly exposed her daughter to outside dangers. Their next stop was Jacksonville, Florida's largest city. She left Lena with a theatrical couple and disappeared again. Back one day for a visit, she made plans with the couple to see a nearby tent show. With Lena in the car, they drove off into the night, laughing and telling stories. Suddenly they saw a black man up ahead, waving his arms. He warned them frantically, "The crackers are out killing tonight!" The gay mood turned to terror; they swerved around and sped home.
Soon Edna and daughter fled Jacksonville and took aimlessly to the road. Lena recalled boarding in a house where the police broke in during the night and used their guns to beat a black man mercilessly. Everyone else in the room looked on in terror. Afterward, Lena sobbingly asked her mother to explain. "They're mean down here," was all Edna said.