Arthenia J. Bates
Arthenia J. Bates (1920- ) was born in Sumpter, South Carolina. She published her first poem when she was sixteen years old. She received a B.A. from Morris College in Sumpter in 1941, a Masters degree from Atlanta University in Atlanta, GA, in 1948, and a Ph.D. from Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, in 1972. She began teaching in 1942 and taught at several high schools, and later began teaching at Morris College. Throughout her long career, she taught at Mississippi Valley State University, Southern University, Baton Rouge, and Norfolk State College, Norfolk, VA. She retired in 1980. She was featured in Who’s Who in America and Who’s Who in American Women in 1966, and The World’s Who’s Who of Women, 1975. She was awarded a Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts in 1976, and in 1981, was named Distinguished Alumni by Morris College. She has published numerous books, including The Deity Nodded, Such Things from the Valley, and Hand on the Throttle: Touchstones in the Life of Lionel Lee, Sr., Volume I: Holding On.
The short story below, “Lost Note,” is excerpted from her acclaimed book of stories, Seeds Beneath the Snow: Vignettes from the South (Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1975), 114-121. Below, Bates discusses how the Emmett Till case inspired her to write the story:
“I was teaching at Mississippi Valley State University (then called Mississippi Vocational College) in Itta Bena at the time of the incident. There was an old mill at the edge of the campus, and they took the wheel from the campus to weigh him down. Reporters were here from everywhere, London, everywhere, trying to get the story. I remember some saying that this isn’t anything new; it happens all the time. But it was so tragic. At that time, things were very tedious; They had a hit list. Medgar Evers was doing a lot of things there. I wanted to do something, but I was so full of terror. It was only after I was away from Mississippi that I was able to put this case in perspective, that I could realize the sadness and the tragedy of it all. One of my students’ grandmother had said to him, “Boy, you bett not whistle no mo.” That was so sad to me; a boy could not even whistle for fear that it may get to the wrong ears. I kept thinking how sad that was. It made me think of my brother who always loved to whistle. That was an expression of joy. Then, I reflected back on Till and wrote the short story, ‘Lost Note’” (as quoted in Clenora Hudson-Weems, Emmett Till: The Sacrificial Lamb of the Civil Rights Movement, Troy, MI: Bedford Publishers, Inc., 1994, 112-113).
Hudson-Weems herself explains: “In ‘Lost Note,’ Bates presents a profound commentary on the haphazardness of the southern environment in which Till’s crime—wolf whistling at a white woman—occurred. One must note that the primary reason his whistling was a crime was that, as Bates describes it, it fell on the ‘wrong ears.’ Thus, Till’s gesture got ‘lost’ in the elements, for had it not gotten to the white woman, it would have been safe” (Hudson-Weems, 113-114).
Lost Note (1969)
Autumn in the South is a season shouting with joy.
It is a time for reaping what has been sown earlier. It is the time that marks the end of vigorous labor in the vast cotton fields and the thick sugar-cane patches. It is a time for selling and buying, of swapping small talk and big lies in the market-places.
It is the time of the County Fair, where tons of sizzling delicious, half-clean, foot-long hot dogs are devoured by the shoveling, amiable prize-seekers.
It is the time for airing classrooms for the anxious new members.
With this autumn, however, a heavy grief came to mar the expected happiness of the season.
The men in the marketplaces talked about it instead of their profits. The housewives abandoned the fence conferences for long sit-down talks.
When the news reached her town, Clara Atkins denounced God momentarily for creating black men. Then she asked God to forgive her for the wicked thought. She tried to sleep to avoid thinking, but even a light nap conjured up the image she wanted to close from her mind.
In her dream, a policeman with a beet-red face harrassed her by jerking her closer to a huge fish net tangled over the body of a boy she imagined to be her grandson.
As soon as the school children cleared the street the next morning, she crossed the street to Nursery Belle McCants' house.
"Nursey," she called, "where you?"
Clara sat down in the porch swing, which was almost hidden from the street by a thatch of ivy vines.
She stung Nursey McCants with the question as soon as she settled herself in the swing.
"I came to ask you how Juny Boy taking it?"
"I 'druther not
speak of it, Clara."
"Me neither, Nursey, but we got to do something whether we want to or not. Both of us is fading widow women (I'm in my fifty-nine) with a young boy, a piece we didn't ask for. But by the mercy of the Lord, we got them, and they all we got."
"You speak the truth, Clara, but ain't no guarantee we going to keep them because we got them."
"You're right Nursey," she said, "but I can't see nothing happening here in Wedgefield like it happened across yonder in Mississippi River country. I don't know the answer any more, though, to tell the truth."
"Clara, in my whole sixty-two-odd years here, I ain't never known no big trouble to come between them and us."
"No, Nursey, but since they fished that child out the river over yonder, the air is tight about town."
"I been on pins, too, Clara. But look at all the people over the world who don't like it."
"I'm glad to see who don't like it, but none of that won't bring him back, Nursey. None of it."
"What we to do, Clara? I pray until I get shame bothering the Lord."
"We got to ram some sense in these boys' heads."
"Since Juny Boy made twelve, I can talk to him a little more. That's all I can do, Clara."
"Well, I can't say that for Son. Something's left out of his middle. You don't tell me something ain't wrong with a boy that sleeps through frying bacon and perking coffee every morning."
"Maybe he just can't smell, Clara."
"That's just what I'm trying to get at. He don't use all of his senses."
"Don't you ever talk out your mouth — just tell him down to a tittle?"
"You know I do, Nursey, but as hard as I try to teach him manners, he goes telling the wrong folks `yes' and 'no.' Besides,
he whistles when he gets good and ready to, in season and outa reason. And so far, I can't stop that."
"You don't like for me to say it, Clara, but Son's bound to have some of that up-the-road blood in him from his mama's side."
"Whatever he's got in him, he needs something else. He hasn't got that something to make you love or hate a lot. He hasn't got that something that makes you smell trouble a mile off."
"Juny Boy's got a lot of that in him from somebody, if not me.
"Well, since Son hasn't it, Nursey, I got to help give it to him so as my coat skirt'll he clear from here to Glory."
She stood waiting for Nursey Belle McCants' judgment on her decision.
"Clara, all I've got to say is, I glory in your spunk."
Clara Atkins finished her morning chores and started dinner for Son. She did not care to eat.
Tears were in her heart — tears that were huge and too terrible to fall from her eyes — tears that hacked up and dripped one by one, like raindrops on a tin roof, on a tender spot in her heart.
She finished cooking dinner and sat in her rocker on the front porch to wait for Son.
About two-thirty he unlatched the gate, whistling one of the thousand tunes he seemed to have ready for delivery at the drop of a leaf.
"Son," Clara stood up, "you whistling on a day like this?"
"What's a day like this, Grandma Atkins?"
"There's bad trouble in the land, honey."
"Way over there in what they call the Delta."
"That's way away, Grandma Atkins," he shrugged his shoulders. "It's got nothing to do with us."
"Son, it's got
everything to do with us. Didn't they tell you all
me." He had whistled his way almost out of the kitchen when Clara called him.
"Come here," she said.
"What I've done now?"
"Nothing but walking along there whistling like you own all of God's creation."
They stared at each other a minute.
"Come on back in here a minute," she ordered.
"Mama, I've done nothing."
"You can `mama me' to death when you want to get out of something."
"Just tell me what I've done."
"It's mostly for the promise of what you will do."
"That's not fair, Mama."
"What is fair? Fair? You do as I say, if you're to stay under my roof another night."
She continued in a rash voice.
"Run out yonder to the little house and attend to your needs."
"I don't have any needs."
"You'd better watch your mouth."
"Now listen," she started again, "when you come from out there, get a drink of water and come on in the dining room, where I'll be."
"Grandma Atkins, I'm old enough to know some things. I don't want to go out `yonder,' and I don't want any water, and I've done nothing."
"Matters little what you want to do; you're going to do as I said. And I mean now."
Son pursed his lips, cupped each ear with a hand and gal-loped out of the kitchen.
She could hear Son whistling his way to the privy and whistling his way back.
He marched into the dining room and straight to her chair, as her Jim used to do to unnerve her.
Son kneeled down and began trembling with laughter.
"My hind part is sticking out mighty far, Mama."
"Sure. You just shut your impudent mouth."
A tear hit the nape of his neck.
She placed a short, plump hand on each shoulder and patted Son as she used to pat his buttocks to show affection when he was a little fellow.
"This we ask in Thy name. Amen. Now get up." She brushed him away. "Go open the closet."
"Now take this chair and sit it careful over those jars. No," she directed him, "turn the front of the chair to face the wall."
He obeyed her.
"Now you sit in the chair."
"I thought you wanted me to stand up to reach something for you on the high shelf."
"No. You can just as well sit to get at what I want."
Clara shut the closet door and turned the lock as Son sat down.
"Hey, Mama. What's the big idea? It's dark with the door shut. How can I get what you want?"
"What I want is for you to sit yourself in that chair and think until I unlock the door."
"I can't think in this musty place and in the dark like this, Mama."
She heard a thudding, crashing sound in the closet.
"If it was the electric chair, you'd stand it whether you want to or not, Son."
She dusted the furniture in the dining room as Son clamored for attention.
"Mama, mama," he called plaintively.
"Mama, I'm dying. I swear the rats are eating me alive."
"Um-hum. Where'd you get that talk?"
"Mama, mama. I'm dying. I cross my heart."
"You'd better not wear yourself out, Son."
"Mama, something's crawling on my neck. Something cold. Oh, Lordy Lord. Mercy, Lord. Mama, it's going to choke me."
be quiet. That's your own devilish mind on you.
"You know I can't see how to whistle in here."
"You're mean, Mama. I didn't know you were so mean. I don't care if you don't ever let me out. I won't have to go to school."
“Well, I'll be about my work then." She felt satisfied now that she knew that something could pierce his middle. He could feel.
She went on to clean the kitchen and then she sorted clothes for the next day's laundry.
On finishing these chores, she unlocked the closet.
She looked at him as if she had never seen him before, when he came out of the closet. He would not face her.
"Son, you all right?" she asked.
"Are you sure?"
"Yes, except I broke something."
She inspected his khaki trousers that were splattered with a reddish mess.
"You broke a quart of strawberry preserves, and I didn't have but two."
"I didn't mean to, honestly, Grandma Atkins."
"If that's all
you break before you leave this world, you'll be doing fine." She
I'll go clean up. And
I swear — I mean, I promise I'll pick you a whole bucket full of
strawberries next spring."
"I want you to remember that when you walk the streets of Wedgefield or any other street anywhere."
"You haven't started feeling, yourself, yet, but you will. When that happens, I don't want you to see nothing but black when it comes to womenfolks."
"Mama, I'm not thinking about girls. That's way off."
"Whether you're thinking about them or not, I mean for you to check on that whistling. Every time you whistle, you just think back and make pretense like you were locked up to not ever get out."
"I swear, Grandma Atkins, if I have to think about your joke every time I whistle, I don't care if I ever whistle again."
"You watch your mouth, Son, when you talk to me."
He sat there kicking at nothing steadily with his right foot.
"You can whistle.
That's the way your heart talks. All I want you to do is to make sure
your tune don't catch up with the wrong ears."