Just then they were all eating yams, candied and still hot from the stove. Golden-brown pieces glistening with sauce that dripped from the serving spoon as it moved between the bowl and the plates. Heavy sweet pieces that clung to their forks, sank and settled on their tongues and then dissolved in a swirl of rich textures.
The girl’s uncle Todd pushed back his chair and reached for the bowl and a second helping. His broad hands pressed across the table, past his water glass and the ladle of gravy, the tea lights and decorative poinsettia, up and over the enormous ham.
“Why can’t you just ask?”
The girl looked up and saw her uncle Richard glaring at his brother as he held up a glass of iced tea. She had two uncles; Uncle Richard always sat on the opposite side of the table between his wife, Aunt Ruth, and his daughter, Cousin Simone. Todd always sat next to his sister, the girl’s mother.
Uncle Todd seized the bowl with both hands. He lifted it high above the table before he realized it was still hot. His arms shuddered in a quick spasmodic jerk as the bowl tilted and dipped between his fingers.
“The ham!” the girl’s mother gasped. But Uncle Todd did not drop the bowl. He jiggled it between his fingers for a moment and then yanked it toward himself like a quick intake of breath, setting it down hard on the table.
“That’s what the tongs are for,” Aunt Ruth said.
Uncle Todd dunked the spoon into the bowl and dumped a large portion of yams onto his plate. Uncle Todd was her uncle who seemed convinced that if he waited for tongs he would only find that he was still hungry and perhaps that there was nothing left.
At the head of the table the girl’s grandfather asked for more iced tea. The pitcher was passed down, every hand moving slowly and deliberately as if offering a demonstration of how such things were properly done.
“Margaret called today,” her grandfather said. “You get that message?”
“What did she want?” Uncle Todd said. He was her uncle who had quarreled with his wife and was currently sleeping on her grandparents’ couch.
“To wish you a happy holiday, I imagine. How are things coming along, anyway? Everything all right?”
“It is what it is,” Uncle Todd said. “I mean I’m still here, aren’t I? Haven’t given up yet.”
Uncle Todd was her uncle who talked with his mouth full and then spit when he talked, sometimes slinging great gobs of half-masticated yams right onto the table. He turned his head and noticed the girl was staring. Mistaking her expression but noticing the lull in the conversation, something inside of him must have resolved to fill it.
He put down his fork and wiped his hands on his pants. He reached for the spoon and scooped out the last large piece of yam. He swung his arm across her mother’s chest and held the spoon over the girl’s plate.
“Here,” Uncle Todd said.
The girl covered her plate with her hands and shook her head. “No, thank you,” she said. She told him that she’d had enough and was already full.
“Eat them anyway,” Uncle Todd said and tipped his spoon. The only thing that saved her from burning the backs of her hands was a sudden instinct to flinch.
“What are you doing?” the girl’s mother said.
Uncle Todd told the girl to eat her yams. He told her it was important to eat yams because it prevented sickle cell anemia. Years later, as a grown woman, she would be sitting in a doctor’s office, thumbing through a medical journal, and come across an article that offered the far more plausible explanation that sickle cell had developed in Africa as a defensive response to the threat of malaria. But that night she sat and listened as her uncle talked about dietary deficiencies and the need for little black girls to eat yams.
Uncle Todd told the girl that yams had been a staple of the West African diet, that her ancestors had eaten them the same way Asians eat rice. In Africa yams were not something you only hauled out on holidays and special occasions, set among the fixtures of the slave diet her grandfather insisted brought good luck at Thanksgiving. The mustard greens, the black-eyed peas, the pickled pigs’ feet— all crowded into smaller side dishes and placed around the enormous ham, that monument to all they had to be thankful for. Unlike these other things, the yam was no mere tribute to endurance in the face of deprivation and the beneficence of strong spice. The yam was something her ancestors had smuggled with them from Africa, like wisdom.
The girl stared at Uncle Todd and said nothing. He was her uncle who every Christmas gave her ugly digital watches that doubled as calculators. She ate her yams, accepted her inoculation to the extent that it tasted good.
“You hear that?” Uncle Richard said. “And all this time I just thought I liked the taste.”
“It’s a craving. Something we had to learn to do without.”
“You sure about that, brother?” the girl’s mother said. “Sure it’s not the sugar?”
“No,” Uncle Todd said. “It’s not the sugar, it’s not the salt. Just think of all the things that were lost or that we had to leave behind, never knowing if we would ever see them again. This yam, in a sense, is a symbol of our faith, a symbol of who we are.”
Uncle Todd explained that black Americans had survived their craving for yams and that like every other trial and deprivation they had endured during slavery it had helped to make them strong. He told her this was one of the great ironies of history, that the enslaved had wound up stronger than the enslaver, precisely because they had been bred that way.
“For crissakes,” Aunt Ruth said. “I’m trying to eat. Can’t you think of something more pleasant to talk about at the dinner table?”
“It’s the truth,” Uncle Todd said. “It’s history, you can’t blame me for history. Anyhow, you should be proud. Just try to imagine all your ancestors went through. All those generations that struggled to keep going, to find the strength to keep believing there was a reason to carry on no matter what.”
Uncle Todd told Aunt Ruth that she should enjoy her yams and appreciate the fact that she deserved them. Because she was fit.
A silence swept across the table as if they were all deliberating the things he said. Uncle Todd was her uncle who, so far as the girl could tell, lived his life as a series of scams and get-rich-quick schemes. Sometimes he was her prosperous uncle and other times he was her uncle in a rumpled suit, staring across the table with bloodshot eyes, beseeching his siblings for “start-up capital.” He was her uncle who sent postcards from South America, who had investments in Venezuela and El Salvador. He was her uncle who was currently being sued by the US government for tax evasion. But above all he was her uncle who talked so much it was impossible to dismiss the things he said as merely an excuse to distract everyone else from the more obvious questions he might have taken their silences to imply. For example: When was he going home to his wife?
“These are things I shouldn’t have to tell you,” Uncle Todd said. They wouldn’t teach the girl these things in school, which was why she had to learn to read between the lines, just like it was natural for black people to dance between beats. This was the key to black creativity and also why black children needed to be spanked.
The girl’s mother looked at him.
Somehow yams had something to do with why black children were so prone to hyperactivity. Their first impulse was always jittery and dreamy eyed, as if they were missing something, looking for something, and worse still, actually believed they would find it. All of which was a consequence of slavery and made sense if you considered the resources that had been necessary to survive it. The strength of will, the sheer imagination required to keep believing there could be a way out of even the most oppressive situation, and therefore a need to keep going. It was why they had emerged as such a creative people.
This was especially true of the girl’s ancestors, the North Carolina Negroes. Ever heard of Stagville? Right there in Durham? If the girl ever took the time to study her history she would know that Stagville once functioned, more or less, as a vast penal colony for problem slaves, the ones who could not be broken and kept running away. A certain type of white master would sell them off to Stagville where they would find themselves one among hundreds of slaves, surrounded by miles and miles of land bordered by armed guards.
Uncle Todd said, “They’d plop them down right in the middle and say, ‘Okay, Negro. Let’s see you run now. Let’s see if you can even figure out which way is up.’ That was how they thought they could finally break them. But of course that isn’t what happened at all.”
“Yes, that last shackle, the shackle of confusion,” Aunt Ruth said. “That sounds about right.”
“It’s been the hardest one of all,” Uncle Todd said.
The girl heard a gagging sound, looked up and saw her cousin Simone holding up her glass of water, the startled expression on Simone’s face as something went down the wrong pipe.
“You all right?” Uncle Todd said.
Uncle Todd was her uncle who drove too fast on the highway, bulldozed over speed bumps and then laughed as the girl and her cousin let out a series of terrified shrieks from the back seat. And when he slowed down, the girl and Simone always looked at each other, startled by the sound of their own voices as some nameless impulse of adrenaline caused them both to shout, “Again! Again!”
How did she think they had survived? And why did she think there were so many Black Americans with Native American blood? Because it was unnatural for a black man to contemplate suicide. Their will to live was too strong because it had had to be. And that was why—
“All right, that’s enough,” Uncle Richard said. He threw his napkin down and stood up from the table. “Dammit, Todd. Just stop. If you need help that bad, just ask for it. But don’t do this. Don’t ruin dinner.”
“Why do you always have to take things too far?” Aunt Ruth said. She picked up her husband’s plate and followed him into the kitchen.
The girl stared at her uncle Todd. He was her uncle who, when she was four, snuck into her bedroom one night while she was sleeping and rubbed pepper on her thumb to get her to stop sucking it.
She narrowed her eyes.
“Who wants pie?” Aunt Ruth called from the kitchen.
“Eat your yams. They’re good for you.”
That night she just sat there, eating her yams because they tasted good, wondering why that wasn’t good enough. She needed to be spanked, Uncle Todd said. All black children did. Taught to respect their elders, to keep their eyes where they belonged, their hands where you could see them. Taught to obey the rules, made to understand how the world really worked. They needed to be spanked before it was too late, before their wild visions and mad cravings got the better of them and then they wound up ruined. Because when that happened there was only the family to blame.
While the girl’s mother sat and stared and thought, What if some of it is true? Not all of it, of course. But some of it? She’d spent years trying to prove her brother wrong, chipping away at the idea that what the girl needed was a strong male role model. Because who exactly? Meanwhile the girl was getting bigger by the day, more stubborn, more difficult to control. More like her father, who’d had so much potential once, only to wind up another man gone.
What if she just admitted it, that in the back of her mind she feared that doing it alone was a death sentence of sorts? What if she just pushed back her chair, got up and out of Todd’s way? What if she—
Years later, the girl was still convinced that the only thing that saved her was a sudden instinct to flinch.